Hundreds of community members joined educators in the Saint Paul Public Schools system Tuesday in a car rally organized by the Saint Paul Federation of Educators. Speakers and demonstrators called for a delay to the reopening of elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers, school staff, parents, and students expressed their fears of spreading the virus. Case numbers in Minnesota continue to rise and a new strain has been reported in the state. They want to ensure a solid plan is in place that prioritizes the safety of teachers and students and helps control the spread of the virus. Families have had the choice to pursue distance learning for the remaining part of the school year, but the plan announced by superintendent Joe Gothard in December allows the schools to operate classrooms fully in-person. Teachers had been preparing for a hybrid schedule, but now must prepare to be back in classrooms for in-person learning on February 1 before all teachers and staff will be able to receive vaccinations.

“People say there’s a learning loss taking place…but we’re all here surviving a global pandemic,” said Education Minnesota Vice President Bernie Burnham at the rally. “Do we want to be back with our students? Of course we do, but not until it’s safe.”

Saint Paul Public Schools responded to issues raised by SPFE in a statement:

SPPS-STATEMENT-1-13-21

The Minnesota Department of Health is still in Phase 1A of vaccine distribution, which includes healthcare workers and people residing in long-term care facilities. The Department of Health announced Thursday a shift in policy that allows providers more flexibility with giving vaccinations to people aged 65 and over and those with underlying health conditions if they have enough doses available. Phase 1B, which includes more frontline essential workers and people whose age or health conditions puts them at risk, will begin in early February. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it may take a few weeks for the vaccine to provide protection and build immunity.

“The coronavirus has dramatically impacted our daily lives and world of work,” said St. Paul Regional Labor Federation President Kera Peterson. “There are many essential workers including people who work in our schools that have not been vaccinated yet.”

President of Minnesota Nurses Association Mary Turner spoke at the rally. Turner is a nurse in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at North Memorial in Robbinsdale and has been on the frontlines since last February. She questioned how teachers and staff are supposed to have enough personal protective equipment when nurses in hospitals don’t even have access to a proper amount. “Our teachers and our students deserve the right to educate and learn in a safe environment,” she said. “I see the suffering and the pain that this virus has called and to take it lightly, leaders of St. Paul school district, this is appalling and shameful.”

Parents are lacking detailed information necessary to make the decision to send their children to school in a pandemic. Questions include how will elementary-aged children be able to stay distanced on the school bus, in the classroom, during recess and in the cafeteria.

“Making parents make decisions with little information and few answers to important questions is not acceptable,“ said Jason Vasquez, a bilingual education assistant at St. Paul Public Schools and a parent of two children in the system. “Rushing into reopening without a clear plan and while COVID case numbers are still high is not safe for our students, our families, our staff, or our community.”

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