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Teachers issue safety demands

Teachers marched in St. Paul to the Governor’s mansion July 24 asking Governor Walz to meet a list of safety demands before schools re-open.

From the Minneapolis Labor Review, July 24, 2020

By Steve Share, Minneapolis Labor Review editor

MINNEAPOLIS — As this issue of the Labor Review went to press July 19, big unknowns loomed for parents, students, teachers and other school employees: Will Minnesota schools re-open in September? And can it be done safely?

Governor Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education were expected to make an announcement by July 27 — but teachers weren’t waiting.

July 17, the three teachers unions for the Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis, and St. Paul school districts jointly issued a list of 10 demands for Governor Walz which they say must be met for schools to re-open safely. The unions invited the public to sign-on to the demands via an online petition (see below).

The document was titled, “Safe Schools, Safe Communities, Safe Start to the School Year.”

In no uncertain terms, however, the teachers declared: “The safest start to the school year is continuing distance learning.”

“Our communities are facing a surging health crisis, as COVID rates have continued to rise. We cannot put our students, families, or school staff at risk,” read the document, developed by Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, and the St. Paul Federation of Educators.

The demands were both specific and expansive in scope.

The number one demand: “Compliance with public health standards at all sites. No shortcuts on making sure our students and staff are safe.”

“There are not enough safety measures in place,” said Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. “With the number of [COVID-19] cases rising, we can’t risk our members and students dying.”

The list of demands includes specific measures like daily temperature checks for everyone entering a school bus or school site, providing Personal Protective Equipment to all students and staff, and free COVID-19 testing and treatment.

In addition, the demands also call for increasing the number of school nurses, counselors, psychologists and other essential staff.

The demands further call for schools to make major capital investments including upgrading ventilation systems to improve indoor air quality.

Expanding to other educator concerns, the demands also call for implementing culturally relevant curriculum and eliminating high-stakes standardized testing.

“We want Governor Walz to do all those things before schools can re-open,” MFT president Callahan said.

“We’re not going back to the way things were,” she added.

Greta Callahan, president Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, spoke at a rally kicking-off the July 24 teachers march to the Governor’s mansion: “Why would we go back and risk our lives for a system that has demonized educators?”

In advance of a decision by Governor Walz, Minnesota schools have been asked to prepare for three different scenarios he might direct: continuing distance learning, bringing everyone back to school, or taking a hybrid approach.

Continuing distance learning “is the safest way of not spreading the disease, no doubt about it,” said Val Holthus, president of Anoka-Hennepin Education Minnesota.

Back in March, when the governor ordered schools to close, teachers and
school districts had little time to prepare.

“We just had to jump in,” Holthus said. “We learned some things. Now we’re planning to deliver distance learning better.”

In the Anoka-Hennepin District, while planning for each of the three possible scenarios, “we’ve hammered out the hybrid model,” Holthus said. “There’s so many questions.” That approach, she noted, takes the most effort to coordinate and could present a logistical nightmare for families if some of their children were supposed to be in school certain days while their siblings were on an alternate schedule. And what if some families rely on older siblings to help care for younger siblings?

“There are so many unknowns,” Holthus said. “it’s really hard to plan for things we can’t anticipate.”

She added: “we have so many questions about the disease itself.”

If everyone goes back to the classroom, she said, “teachers are worried about how in the world are you going to do social distancing? With younger kids, it’s almost impossible.”

In her district, Holthus noted, the number of teachers who are 60-plus years old is significant, not to mention those with underlying health conditions. “Teachers are worried about their own health.”

“I’ve had more questions about retirement and [leaves of absence] than I’ve ever had before,” Holthus said. “Teachers are afraid, particularly the older ones.”

MFT’s Callahan said a survey of her members found only 30 percent feel they could go back to classrooms. “People overwhelmingly do not feel safe.”

Click here for the full text of “Safe Schools” demands. At the link, supporters also can add their name to an online petition urging Governor Walz to support the teachers’ demands.

Crowd of teachers outside Governor's mansion.

Several hundred teachers from Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and St. Paul Federation of Educators marched to the Governor’s manion July 24, where they listened to speakers urging schools not re-open for in-person learning this fall.

KerryJo Felder, Minneapolis School Board member, spoke to the crowd.

Kerry Jo Felder, Minneapolis School Board member, spoke to the crowd outside the Governor’s mansion about safety concerns in re-opening schools this fall: “Look at me: do I look like it’s safe to be here? I’m afraid... We can’t even fully-fund our schools. How are we going to fund Personal Protective Equipment to keep everyone safe?”








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