As St. Paul teachers and school district leaders argue over when to return to the classroom, a recent surge in confirmed coronavirus cases could push more Minnesota schools to close in favor of distance learning.
A weekly report released Thursday by the state Department of Health shows only 11 counties have a small enough number of new cases that all students should be able to safely take in-person classes. That’s down from 24 counties in last week’s report and 46 one month prior.
The new case rates are intended as a starting point for districts as they consider whether to open their schools.
The rise in new cases has come with a corresponding increase in testing, with the positive test rate holding steady just under 5 percent.
In Minneapolis and St. Paul, where new case rates have ticked up but remain relatively low, the local teachers unions are resisting efforts to transition to in-person instruction.
“There’s a lot of unanswered questions and we feel really uneasy, so let’s slow things down,” Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said at a rally Wednesday.
Both metro unions have made demands related to safety and academic quality; hazard pay and lower staffing ratios in their child-care programs; and a more equitable student experience and less required live instruction time during distance learning.
The unions also want the districts to help them make the case that schools need more money and that wealthy individuals and corporations aren’t paying their fair share.
St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said in response Wednesday that he’s disappointed union leaders aren’t cooperating on a return to the classroom.
“Our families, our students and our community, along with SPPS leadership, all want our students and educators back in the classroom as soon as it’s safe. That time has come,” Gothard said in a news release. “Demands to ‘slow down the process’ do not put the needs of our students and families first.”
The St. Paul district last Friday said it’s met 23 of 24 conditions for transitioning the first group of students — around 500 who spend most of their time in special-education settings — from at-home learning to a part-time, in-person schedule on Oct. 19.
The one unmet condition is having enough staff to run those programs. Gothard seemed to blame the teachers union for the holdup.
“I would ask SPFE leadership to encourage staff to report according to our plan for transition to hybrid learning. Like hundreds of thousands of schools and districts around the world who are currently in some form of hybrid learning, SPPS is ready,” he said Wednesday.
The district has refused to explain exactly what must happen in order to meet that final readiness target.
However, district leaders said last month that they had begun negotiating with the union a memorandum of understanding around hybrid instruction. There’s been no indication an agreement has been reached.
The latest figures from the Department of Health, which cover test samples collected Sept. 6-19, show Ramsey County had 15 new cases per 10,000 residents, up from 13 in last week’s report after weeks of declines.
Hennepin County’s new case rate also ticked up, to 17 from 15.
According to state health guidelines, those numbers suggest that Twin Cities schools may be able to safely bring elementary students back to school full-time and secondary students two days a week.
But some teachers don’t buy that notion.
At the rally Wednesday, Highland Park Middle School teacher Linda Jones noted that 79 percent of district students are indigenous or people of color, whose communities have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus.
She urged the district to focus on making distance learning more equitable while waiting for the virus to be better contained in the community.
Faber, the union president, called for better Internet access for students and improved technical support from the district.
“We feel we can really make distance learning work,” he said.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest school district, is surveying families about a possible move to full in-person instruction for its elementary schools by Oct. 19. If that happens, middle and high school students would remain in the hybrid model in the near term.
“Many districts are full in-person, and our parents are expecting it,” Superintendent David Law told the school board Monday.
Anoka County’s new case rate was 21 per 10,000 residents in Thursday’s report, up from 17 one week ago.
According to the state’s weekly report:
- 11 counties had fewer than 10 new cases per 10,000 residents, which means school leaders should consider teaching all students in-person every day while taking precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
- 44 counties had new case rates of 10-20 per 10,000 residents, which suggests elementary students can go to school full-time while middle and high school students can return part-time to allow for social distancing.
- 16 counties had 20-30 new cases per 10,000 residents, suggesting all students can go to school part-time.
- 12 counties had a new case rate over 30, allowing elementary students to attend part-time while secondary students learn from home.
- And four had a new case rate over 50, suggesting all K-12 students should be in distance learning.