Wait for vaccines to reopen schools, St. Paul educators say

Hamza Dirie, 9, shows support for teachers’ safety during a car rally staged by the St. Paul Federation of Educators.

St. Paul educators, parents and community members wary of the district’s plan to resume in-person learning staged a car rally Jan. 12, calling on administrators to hold off on reopening buildings until COVID-19 vaccines are available to school staff.

St. Paul Public Schools plans to begin a phased-in reopening of elementary schools and some other programs Feb. 1, with new guidelines, protocols and facilities upgrades in place to prevent the virus’ spread among students and staff.

Those measures drew skepticism from rally-goers like Brittany Livaccar, an emergency-room nurse at United Hospital who drove to the rally with her family of five. She said district leaders should reconsider their timeline now that restaurants, bars and gyms are open, and a more contagious strain of the virus is spreading.

“Our hospitals are going to be overwhelmed soon, so it’s really important we keep our students and teachers safe,” said Livaccar, a member of the Minnesota Nurses Association. “I know it’s difficult, but we can’t go backwards now, when our COVID numbers are still high and we don’t have a vaccine for everyone.”

The SPPS plan for reopening received a vote of no confidence from members of the St. Paul Federation of Educators Executive Board, the union’s president told supporters at the car rally.

“We want to keep our community safe, we want to keep our students safe and we want to keep our members safe,” SPFE President Nick Faber said. “That’s why we are here tonight.”

Union members and supporters will be back in the streets tomorrow, Jan. 19, rallying outside Central high school from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. The district’s Board of Education is scheduled to meet later that evening.

Vaccines are coming

After across-the-board shutdowns last spring, Minnesota school districts have navigated COVID-19 differently during the 2020-21 school year. But none of the myriad local learning models has managed to avoid disruptions and frustrations resulting from the outbreak.

To create more certainty for the state’s youngest learners, Gov. Tim Walz in December eased guidelines for opening elementary schools, allowing districts to reopen classrooms even if community spread of the virus is higher than previously allowed.

But educators warn that, regardless of guidelines, community spread will impact schools’ ability to remain open – at least until their frontline workers are vaccinated.

“One of the hard lessons we’ve all learned from this pandemic is that you can’t operate schools when the virus is spreading too fast through the community because too many educators get sick or go into quarantine,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “Wearing masks, washing hands, keeping your distance – these are the choices that will decide when our school buildings reopen and stay open.”

Educators got some good news Jan. 18, when Walz’s administration unveiled a pilot program to prioritize vaccination of school staff and child care workers. But officials emphasized that the state’s allotment of vaccine doses from the federal government remains limited.

“While we do not have enough doses for everyone who wants a vaccine to receive one right away, we are building the system and structure so that once we receive those additional doses from the federal government, we can move quickly to support our school staff and bring even more students back into our classrooms,” Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said.

A plea for patience

At the rally in St. Paul last week, union members and parents urged district leaders to hold off on in-person learning until it’s clear students and educators returning to the classroom are there to stay.

“We are so close to finally feeling comfortable returning to our classrooms,” Bridge View elementary teacher Christin Fleming said. “Being vaccinated would be an absolute game changer.”

Reopening before it’s safe, SPFE leaders warned, will cost the district qualified educators at a time when they are in short supply.

Results of an Education Minnesota survey released last fall showed a majority of members who responded said teaching during the pandemic has left them stressed, anxious and overwhelmed. Nearly three in 10 were thinking about quitting or retiring, and applications for pension benefits were on the rise.

A post on SPFE’s social-media account in the days following the car rally reported that two kindergarten teachers assigned to in-person learning at one elementary school in the district already have resigned.

Janet Nelson has seen the attrition firsthand while working in the district’s child-care program for essential workers’ families. The SPFE member said staff turnover is a “constant challenge” for the program. Among staff assigned to the site when the school year began in September, Nelson said, she’s the only one still working there.

Faber and other union leaders pledged to keep pressure on SPPS to alter its course, urging supporters to sign an online petition to Superintendent Joe Gothard and contact members of the school board individually.

“It is not too late to turn this around,” Faber said.

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