As the state of Minnesota works to reopen, the issue has pitted the school districts of Minneapolis and St. Paul against their respective teachers unions.
This is part of a larger debate in the education world and across the nation. It’s a difficult situation. On one hand, school districts are tasked with meeting the needs of students who are falling behind academically, emotionally, and psychologically during the pandemic. On the other hand, there are the safety concerns of educators, many of whom are vulnerable to COVID-19 on account of age or other secondary health issues.
Then, too, there’s always the prospect that — even if the districts should initiate a full reopening — teachers unions may hold their ground and strike in order to protect themselves from what they deem inadequate and risky health standards in the districts.
“We’ve been crystal clear since the pandemic hit that (Minneapolis Public Schools) is not safely ready to return to in-person learning,” Greta Callahan, the president of the Minneapolis teachers union, told media outlets in mid-January. “Now is the time for MPS to go above and beyond the most basic safety measures required by the state.”
This stance drew its fair share of ire from Minnesota Republican lawmakers, who have been urging the state to reopen its schools as quickly as possible. The resistance to reopening by Twin Cities teachers unions flies in the face of the health care community consensus, they said, and it speaks more to hostile political animus, not the legitimate concerns of teachers.
“President Biden's Centers for Disease Control director, Rochelle Walensky stated weeks ago that we can safely reopen schools and get students and teachers back in the classroom,” wrote state Rep. Josh Heintzeman, R-Nisswa, in an email. “Considering that statement, I would suggest a more aggressive plan to reopen schools than what we’re currently following.”
State Rep. Dale Lueck, R-Aitkin, said schools not only need to reopen as quickly as possible, they may need additional course offerings or summer school options to make up for lost time.
“I’m hearing a constant drumbeat over this,” Lueck said during a phone interview Thursday, Feb. 18. “We need to get in, we need to get back into school, and I have not seen a single email from a teacher in our area that said, ‘Well, if I get vaccinated, then I’ll come back.’”
State Sen. Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point, was more critical in her comments on the matter, blasting teachers unions as selfish.
“Why should the teachers unions have any say in whether the schools should open or not?” Ruud said during a phone interview Friday. “I’m certain school superintendents and the school boards that have been elected by the people would certainly not put their employees and their teachers in jeopardy. This constant noise from the teachers union shows who they are for. They’re not about children. They’re only about themselves, and I find the teachers union and Education Minnesota really pretty offensive on this issue.”
In the Brainerd School District, Misty Jobe, a Forestview Middle School language arts teacher and union representative for Education Minnesota-Brainerd, said opinions vary across a membership of roughly 500 teachers, but the Brainerd chapter is largely on board with reopening, as anxious as they may be about the risks.
“I think that most teachers feel like the benefit of having kids back in classrooms is a really big benefit and it outweighs the risk,” Jobe said during a phone interview Tuesday. “But, it’s not without stress. There’s certainly many people who have a lot of fear about it.”
“There are people who are concerned. There are people who are stressed, but everyone’s really doing the best they can to make the best out of a really challenging situation,” Jobe added. “We’re trying to make it work.”
Teachers understand risks of contracting COVID-19 can never be fully eliminated, Jobe said, and most teachers in her union are supportive, if not excited about returning to a more normal and healthy classroom dynamic. This confidence is born, in part, she said, in the rollout of vaccines and the gradual decline in cases across the nation.
But, that isn’t to say teachers aren’t in a tough spot, Jobe added. Some educators — particularly those who are older or have complicated health factors like Type 1 diabetes — will have to make difficult decisions if they’re willing to put themselves at risk. A number of teachers opted to resign or take an early retirement at the onset of the pandemic for these reasons, Jobe said, and that’s always a possibility going forward.
“There are teachers who have been forced to make difficult decisions between prioritizing their jobs/careers and health concerns for them and their families,” Jobe stated in a follow-up email. “This issue is not specific, of course, to teachers in our district, but I don’t want to downplay the challenges of deciding between really wanting to be back in classrooms with students and whether it is safe to potentially expose family members to COVID-19. We’re relying on our community to adhere to safety protocols in order to keep our schools open and our students and staff healthy.”