Some believe current plans are unsafe, create inequitable learning experiences

Some District 196 elementary school students are scheduled to return to in-person learning next week, but educators have expressed concerns about safety with the district’s latest learning model.

Three district employees addressed the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School Board during public comment at Monday’s meeting and urged members and administrators to rethink the plans for returning to in-person learning.

“We continue to hear from our staff and teachers with pretty big concerns, as we heard tonight for their safety about returning to in-person learning and concerns about when the vaccinations and how will they be distributed to educators. We also and I think I’ve said this almost every board meeting this year, we also hear from many families about their desire to send their children back to school,” Superintendent Mary Kreger said. “The majority of our requests for elementary have been for students to change from digital to in-person learning opportunities as we go through the rest of the school year. And I think that’s data that has been really important for all of us, just knowing how strongly our families feel about the need for their students and their children to be in person.”

Gov. Tim Walz announced changes Dec. 16 in the state’s Safe Learning Plan to enable a phased-in return of elementary students to in-person learning. The state plan allows three grade levels to be phased in at one time, beginning no sooner than Jan. 18, with the next three grades returning to in-person learning no sooner than two weeks later (Feb. 1).

Under District 196’s current plans, pre-kindergarten through second-grade students and students in center-based special education programs will start in-person learning on Jan. 21. Third- through fifth-grade students will return to in-person learning Feb. 4.

Kreger said the district’s ability to go forward with the plans will depend on the its ability to have the right staff in the schools and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Jennifer Trooien, an English language teacher, said the in-person learning plan in the fall led to unsafe working conditions and an inequitable experience for students. During the fall, she taught students in-person and online. Most of her lessons were taught over Zoom video conferencing but those were required to be taught from her school building. She was unable to conduct Zoom meetings with her students in the instructional space provided because she shared it with two other teachers. She often had to use different rooms in the school throughout the day, sometimes changing locations hourly, she added.

Trooien believes next week’s in-person plans will also be unsafe and inequitable like in the fall. She said the only safe option is to remain in remote learning.

“We need to spend less effort on yet another transition and instead spend our energy in supporting our most at risk students,” she said.

Judy Hayes, speech language specialist working at Dakota Valley Learning Center, cited multiple concerns about the in-person learning plans including allowing a minimum of three feet between students and six feet when possible for adults. She said staff will be working in some classrooms where students will not be wearing a mask. While staff working in these classrooms will be provided with two KN95 masks and a face shield these will not be enough for the number of learning days left in the school year.

“We would have two respirators for 68 in-person learning days. (The) CDC suggests limiting reuse to no more than five uses each. You’re asking us to reuse each KN95 at least 33 times,” she said. “One of my biggest fears is that a student in my class will contract COVID-19 in our school, take the virus home to family members and caregivers who will become ill recover but may have long term effects; worse be hospitalized, and heaven-forbid, die. That is what I and my colleagues will be thinking of on a daily basis.”

English language teacher Angela Martin said she’s concerned about the schools reopening as cases of the variant strain of COVID-19 have been discovered in Minnesota.

Martin said the district has worked hard to create equitable access for students in distance learning by providing children with iPads, hot spots and meals. She added that the vaccine is coming and the district should only bring back younger learners when staff are sure they can stay.

“Transitions are incredibly stressful. Change is stressful. We have now changed from hybrid to distance learning and are about to change again to full in-person learning. Many parents at the school where I work have changed learning models. This means that many students will have new teachers when they return to in-person learning,” she said.

The district is continuing to monitor the local COVID-19 data on a daily basis and follow guidance from state health officials. The district is also providing a face shield to all staff, along with face coverings, Kreger said.

“It’s really important that families must have a backup plan in case we need to shift quickly. We’re hoping that does not happen. But families must be prepared for a classroom, a school or the district to shift learning models. Because as you’ve heard, we will continue to monitor these numbers,” she said. “And as long as the trends continue to where we want, we’ll be able to implement our plan. Please be assured the health and safety of our staff is our top priority and of our students.”

Patty Dexter can be reached at patty.dexter@apgecm.com.

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