ST. PAUL — Schools should consider pumping the brakes on planned in-person instruction in some parts of Minnesota as coronavirus cases continue to climb and teachers report issues with getting requests to work remotely through to administrators, educators said Tuesday, Sept. 1.
Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers union, discussed at a virtual news conference Tuesday how educators were preparing for their first in-person classes in almost six months.
The comments come a week before public schools in Minnesota are set to start the 2020-21 academic year, with some meeting in-person, others virtually and a third group melding both. The State Department of Education allowed districts to determine what path to take and offered up-to-date COVID-19 case data to help inform the safest option.
"We're meeting at a dangerous time. Confirmed cases are increasing, especially in the suburbs and southern Minnesota," Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. "Our health commissioner is using words like 'alarming' and 'walking off the edge of a cliff' in her briefings. The numbers are trending toward trouble and those Labor Day parties are coming up."
“Educators should not be bullied by an arbitrary start date someone wrote on a calendar a year ago,” Specht said.
Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm a day earlier warned that informal gatherings were fueling an increase in COVID-19 cases. And that trend could take a turn for the worse over the weekend as Minnesotans consider gathering without mitigation measures like masks.
"We cannot afford to have this Labor Day weekend further accelerate the community spread, because if that happens, what comes next is going to be worse," Malcolm told reporters. “For a while now, we feel we’ve been kind of walking on the edge of a cliff.”
Deb Henton, executive director of Minnesota Association of School Administrators on Tuesday said superintendents around the state were prepared to quickly transition to different learning models if needed. And they were actively monitoring COVID-19 case reports.
"We’ve already seen that some districts have had to pivot," Henton said. "They know that they may need to pivot overnight and I believe that they are definitely ready to do that."
Thousands of educators have health conditions that put them at heightened risk or care for family members or others who have health concerns that could be worsened due to COVID-19, Specht said. And while state guidance requires districts to adapt to allow teachers to opt for distance learning if practicable, some said they'd had trouble securing that option.
Sarah Haavisto, a Two Harbors kindergarten teacher, said she waited more than a month to learn if her district will accept her request to teach remotely out of concerns about her daughter's health. Haavisto's 16-month-old daughter was born prematurely at 29 weeks of pregnancy and faces health concerns that could put her at a heightened risk if she contracted COVID-19.
"I and my family waited in a world of limbo for a month," Haavisto said, noting she'd heard from officials Monday night that she'd not be asked to return in-person. "It's just been kind of a silent world where we ask and there have been no answers."
Specht said teachers around the state are experiencing similar inconsistencies in district policies and some have opted to leave the profession out of frustration and health concerns.
"There really should be no question here. We are in the middle of a pandemic and these are challenging times and we expect compassion and flexibility on behalf of the districts, for our educators who are planning to do essential work," Specht said. "There should be no debate or question that accommodation should be made."
Henton, with the Association of School Administrators, said districts were working one-on-one with teachers, in some cases with union representation present, to find the best accommodations for educators worried about their health or the health of a loved one.
Colleges and universities take first steps back
Minnesota college and university leaders on Tuesday also offered an update on their fall enrollment and plans to bring some students back to campus, with most saying classes and student life would look very different due to COVID-19 mitigation measures.
University of Minnesota President Joan Gabel announced Tuesday that U of M students in Duluth, Rochester and Twin Cities would go back to school this month after a delay in move-ins forced by upticks in COVID-19 cases.
"There was in our mind no reason to go face-first into situations that many of our peers experienced who themselves had relied on experts, made very carefully thought-through plans and yet still were experiencing surprising levels of transmission," Gabel said. "It's a formidable challenge, we know this."
Minnesota State leaders said students had begun in-person courses in recent weeks and they had scaled up social distancing measures, spaces for individual student housing and they provided masks, cleaning materials and health guidance as people returned to campuses around the state.
Health officials on Monday said they'd tracked around 250 in new cases as colleges and universities welcomed students and faculty back for the fall semester. They said most cases were attributed to off-campus sources.