MPS reopening plan faces parent backlash and MFT opposition

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Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals (MFT)

On Friday, January 8th, it was announced that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) intends to offer a full time return to in-person school for PreK through grade 5 teachers and students, starting in February. Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals (MFT) has been strongly opposing the current plan, calling for more safety precautions to be put in place and for teachers to get vaccinated before returning to school. They are hosting many live meetings and posting on their social media to discuss their dissent towards the plan and uplift voices of MPS staff and guardians.

By Kinsley Wilcox-McBride, Minneapolis South High School

On Friday, January 8th, it was announced that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) intends to offer a full time return to in-person school for PreK through grade 5 teachers and students, starting in February. The announcement from Ed Graff, which can be found here, explained that Pre-K through 2nd grade students and teachers are returning on February 8th, and 2 weeks later, February 22nd, 3rd through 5th grade will return as well.

The plan was formally approved by the district on January 19th. Staff have returned to the building as of February 1st to prepare to bring students back into classrooms for the first time in nearly a year. “I’ve been so impressed with the flexibility, creativity and responsiveness of our teachers over the past year. I know that they want the best for their students and I am confident that our staff are up to this historic challenge,” Superintendent Ed Graff said in an email interview.

Under this plan, parents and guardians have the choice to either send their children back to school 5 days a week, or have them remain online full time. A registration form was sent out shortly after, requiring guardians to inform the district if their child was to return in February or remain online. This form was due on January 22nd, although in a message sent to families, the MPS has stated that families may change their preference at any time. Information can be found on the MPS website.

If the form was not filled out by January 22nd, the automatic response recorded for students was in person. “If you do not complete the registration form, your student(s) will automatically be placed in in-person learning and you will receive communication accordingly with dates and next steps. Staffing decisions, transportation routes, meal planning, and more all will depend on how many families are coming back,” the MPS website states. All quotes from MPS are credited to written communications sent from the district to families, and can be found on the MPS website.

Immediate backlash and confusion began amongst parents and staff, with many sharing they feel ill-informed about what the return to in person learning will truly look like. All it takes is a quick scroll through the Minneapolis Public Schools Facebook page to see that many guardians feel the district is rushing families to commit to something before they are able to make an informed decision. “There seems to be such an enormous lack of communication. Many educators as well as many families feel totally shut out of the decision making process,” said MPS parent Leah Dunbar.

Greta Callahan, Teacher Chapter President of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support Professionals (MFT), has been outspoken in her and MFT as a whole’s opposition to the reopening plan created and approved by the district. “What we are opposing here is the plan. We are not opposing going back into in person learning whatsoever,” she said.

In a safe return petition created by MFT which received 5,032 by February 3rd, MFT argued for further steps to be taken before opening schools. MFT states four requests: Voluntary return, give staff the option to get vaccinated, make our schools safe, provide emotional safety.

More information about the specifics of these requests can be found here. With school opening in less than a week, there has been no further agreements between MFT and MPS.

In the summer of 2020, MPS announced the multiple stages they had planned for how they would eventually roll out the transition back to in person school. However, by opening with the options of full-time in person or full-time online, multiple elements of that original plan have now been skipped. One stage of the summer plan involved bringing only select students back into the building. “Many families of disabled students, or kids with IEPs were looking forward to having some in person learning opportunities in a very safe learning environment. Now, many who may have health concerns have to choose to keep their kids home because the buildings are going to be too full with too many people,” explained Dunbar.

MFT has been strongly opposing the current plan, calling for more safety precautions to be put in place and for teachers to get vaccinated before returning to school. They are hosting many live meetings through the MFT 59 facebook page to discuss their dissent towards the plan and uplift voices of MPS staff and guardians.

In an effort to bridge the gap that currently exists between district leadership and MFT, Callahan invited superintendent Ed Graff to a meeting with herself and other union members, an invitation that he declined.

In the weeks since the announcement, MFT has been outspoken, from hosting live streams for the public to attend, spreading quotes from teachers regarding their concerns, and even announcing a Resolution of No Confidence in the MPS Board of Education and Superintendent Ed Graff.  A resolution of no confidence is defined by Merriam-webster dictionary as “a formal vote by which the members of a legislature or similar deliberative body indicate that they no longer support a leader, government, etc.”

By creating this resolution and collecting signatures, teachers, staff and families are making a statement that they do not have confidence or trust in the plans being implemented by MPS leadership. The resolution has received 2,948 signatures as of February 2nd.

The beginning of the Resolution Of No Confidence In the Minneapolis Public Schools Board Of Education and Superintendent Ed Graff reads:

“While the Teacher and Educational Support Professionals (ESP) chapters of MFT 59 strongly support further return to onsite learning, we emphatically hold no confidence in the plans being implemented by Minneapolis Public Schools in their rush to Phase Five in-person learning. As educators we see firsthand the challenges of distance learning. We also know full well that these challenges pale in comparison to the risks this global pandemic and its many implications presents for students, families, and staff. Minneapolis Public Schools assured the public that return to onsite learning would occur in ‘Phases’ with the collaboration of all constituents to put the best plans forward for both academic achievement and health and safety.”

The writing continues to emphasize the jump in numbers of students and staff currently in schools through the district, as well as the ways concerns felt by MFT could be remedied by the district.

“Our confidence has been further violated by MPS: (1) not including educators in co-creating plans to ensure staffing and academic effectiveness; (2) inadequately addressing ongoing health and safety concerns; and (3) prematurely forcing escalated onsite learning without the opportunity for all in the school community to receive vaccines and have them become effective,” the resolution states.

“It is increasingly frustrating for the District to tell families all these plans are in place when staff know it’s not true. Our numbers are still changing, and some classrooms are expected to hold 30 or more students,” said a North Minneapolis elementary teacher in an email interview who prefers to remain anonymous. She will be referred to as Jessica to protect her privacy.

MPS parents have also gotten involved and shown opposition to this plan. MPS parent Theresa Stets, in collaboration with Cliff Willmeng, created a family sign on letter to show solidarity with MFT. The form, titled “Pledge of Solidarity With MPS Educators,” received 274 signatures as of January 3rd.

“Reading the [MFT] petition and understanding that the teachers hadn’t had any input, the union hadn’t had any input into the conditions that were gonna be in the schools they were expected to teach in, I was really upset. Teachers are the heart of our schools.”

“If the district was addressing the four considerations that the teachers put forward, I would feel comfortable,” Stets said. Stets had not yet decided if her 4th grade child would return to the classroom or not.

“I don’t know if you’ve been able to follow the district in the past few years, but this is business as usual, plowing through a plan that they’ve created by themselves without any parent, educator, or student input in what that should look like. The plan right now is completely unsafe. It is the bare minimum requirements by the state and none of us [teachers] were involved in this decision making,” Callahan said.

“As educators we have interacted with these students and families, yet teachers are not being collaborated with. (And inviting us to a meeting and telling us how something is going to be is not collaboration.) When teachers and families are leaving the district in droves, you know something is wrong,” said Jessica.

Callahan echoed this complaint, sharing that, “the most information [teachers] had was watching the school board meeting…when the rest of the public got that information,” she said in reference to safety protocols that will be expected in schools. “[Teachers] are sitting here like ‘wait, we are the ones who are going to be implementing all this? We are going to be the ones in the classrooms and we are learning this at the same time as the public?’ And, only if you’re privileged enough to have four hours out of your night on Tuesday to sit at home and watch that school board meeting, that is wrong.”

“Of course, waiting on a complete vaccine roll-out would be ideal. And we are advocating for expedited vaccine availability. We have been told that vaccinations for staff working in-person with students has been prioritized, but the truth is waiting until everyone can be vaccinated would likely mean that we won’t be returning to in-person learning until at least April and many of our students simply can’t wait that long,” Graff said.

One safety protocol that will be in place is the option for staff members to take biweekly saliva covid tests. “I’ve had like three saliva covid tests, they’re so easy. Why wouldn’t we require every teacher to have weekly saliva testing? It doesn’t hurt anybody, it’s a safety measure,” Callahan said. This is just one of the safety requests MFT has made.

“Don’t get me started on the ‘recommended three foot social distancing,” Callahan continued. “I’m a kindergarten teacher, nobody is going to adhere to three feet, let alone six feet. Especially not if it is just recommended…If we had class size caps we could actually make sure that adequate social distancing could take place.” Large class sizes are a common issue brought up by MPS teachers and parents, and those class sizes will not be required to go down in light of the pandemic.

“Anyone that has spent some time in an elementary school knows that distancing is impossible and that the youngest of kids often need help from their teachers that require hands on assistance…What about lunch time? To have all those kids unmasked, talking, unable to properly distance, this is a dangerous situation,” Dunbar said, voicing a couple of the many concerns she feels are still unanswered as the return date quickly approaches.

“While I am Distance Teaching, I am helping my teammates set up for In Person Teaching to make sure our students are all receiving the same education possible,” shared Jessica. “My room is almost empty of tables as my teammates need them for social distancing…all hallways are one-way hallways. We will not be able to do our regular greetings.”

Teacher explained that handouts are discouraged, so students going back to school will continue to primarily work on SeeSaw or other online platforms while in the classroom.

Another concern with how this plan will unfold is the idea that the learning and progress students have been making through the school year will have to take a hiatus. “The first week of February there is no school, then, I don’t know if you remember kindergarten, but it’s like ‘here’s how you wash your hands, here’s how you get a drink,’” Callahan said of a regular school year. She explained that procedures, routines, classroom expectations and relationship building takes a long time in younger classrooms, so it may largely feel like starting a whole new school year for those going in person, especially while there are only a few months left.

Additionally, many students will be getting new teachers and new classmates, which may set back their comfortability in class and feel like a stressful change this late in the year. “I have 31 students for online learning, as of today. About half were with me for the first two quarters and half were my teammates’ students. There have been studies on how important it is to have consistent adult presence in students’ lives,” said Jessica.

“The majority of our educators who have been called back to in person learning February 8th have no idea what they are going to be teaching on February 8th. We have a few who have been told, ‘You’re going to be now teaching grades 3 through 5,’ and they have been 3rd grade teachers, or ‘You’re going to now be teaching 2nd grade and you’ve been a kindergarten teacher,’” Callahan said in a YouTube video she posted titled “A message to our families.”

This drastic change halfway through the year is causing a great deal of stress and confusion for teachers, who expect that the students will be impacted by the instability as well. “MPS is not providing for any of this right now, this is harmful…Having kids switch their teachers and their classmates, put Covid on the side, is extremely traumatic and it is taking the humanity out of education,” Callahan continued.

Furthermore, consistency in students’ lives will be lacking if teachers have to quarantine and substitute teachers have to get brought in, or if schools have to close back down.

“Because each situation is unique, we will continue to work with the Minneapolis Health Department to make the best decision about whether to close a school building and return to distance learning,” Graff said.

“In most cases, a school can stay open due to our strict, daily cleaning and disinfection practices. Students and staff who are identified as being in close contact with someone who tested positive will be notified as they will need to quarantine under the direction of the Minneapolis Health Department,” he finished.

As for what a school day may look like for students going back to school, Jessica said, “Students arriving in the morning and going to lockers that are spaced out in the hallways. They will have multiple hand sanitizer stations and need to walk around most of our school to get their breakfast and walk to a designated area to eat. Morning meetings will not be happening on the carpet like normal and students will be regularly reminded to keep 3 feet of distance (adults should keep 6 feet of distance). Specialists’ times are different to allow time between classes for cleaning and increased time for hallway travel to allow for distancing. Schedules are done to minimize how many people are in the hallway at any given time. Recess will have outlined areas where each class can play, and we will go over that information with students the first day back.”

While this description is specific to one teacher’s school, it can be expected that other MPS schools will largely follow the same structure.

“We know the classroom experience will not be exactly like it was before the pandemic and we will work hard to make sure the in-person classroom experience better serves the academic and social emotional needs of the families and students who have registered for it,” Graff said.

“Teachers are being told no day will be the same, making planning impossible, and are subject to assignments that violate their contract. Both ESPs [Educational Support Professionals] and Teachers will be reduced to hall monitors escorting students to and from the bathroom, and will be forced to go into multiple classrooms, greatly increasing impermissible commingling,” MFT stated in a document titled “Examples of MPS District Leaders’ Harmful Choices – No Confidence,” sited under the Resolution of No Confidence form.

Dunbar has decided to keep her two students at home. “I realize my privilege allows me to make this choice for our family. I am thankful for being given an option in this situation,” she said. “Since last March, we have been extremely Covid cautious. Then with my mother’s struggle with Covid and eventually dying, it really hit home. I wish a Covid death upon no one. This is an extremely difficult time, but we really have nothing if we do not have our health. With Covid none of us know how we will fare. Is it worth the risk?”

Many people have expressed outrage towards the lack of communication that the school board took part in before voting to move forward with the reopening plan.

“For board meetings we are allowed 25 call in comments, then we are cut off. We can email the Board of Education (BoE), but they never return any emails. We can go to the Davis Center and hold signs, but we feel we are ignored,” said Dunbar. “How is this going to work? How is the Board of Education going to repair all the relationships with families that feel shut out?”

Dunbar also wants to acknowledge the other side of this issue, the side not so strongly against sending their kid back, or the side that does have the privilege of easily having their young child at home all the time.

“They might be financially at their end, there might be serious mental health concerns for the parents or the children, they might just need a break or relief. Whatever the case, they too are forced to make that decision, to send their kids back knowing full well that there still is a great chance of getting Covid from that in-person learning environment.”

“School was not a safe place for many of our students before the pandemic hit. We need mental health support now more than ever. The district is choosing to shove kids back into school..without any additional counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and that is wrong and dangerous,” Callahan said. Pre-pandemic, parents, teachers, and students have put pressure on the MPS district to bring more mental health support to schools, and many believe that the necessity is only heightened by the stress the past year has brought.

“I feel undervalued, and my expertise belittled,” said Jessica. “When they don’t ask teachers for their input, they are not treating us as professionals. What makes it worse, is they say they want our input, and then the district/administration/Ed Graff/School Board, say they don’t want our input and make a choice that is not best for families or educators,” she continued.

“They have lied to families and said hurtful and damaging things about teachers. Ed Graff has worded things to make it sound like teachers don’t care about students, which is the furthest thing from the truth. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in Minneapolis Public Schools. During our last contract negotiations, the district wanted to cut teachers’ pay 5% (one of their first offers). The District has proven with their actions how they feel about us as educators, and they are not listening to families’ needs either. If they spend half as much time working with us (educators and families) as they do trying to pit us against one another, our community would be much better off,” Jessica finished.

Despite accusations that this plan is not as safe as it could be, Graff said, “we feel confident making this decision, because we have taken the steps that health experts have recommended to prioritize the health and safety of our invaluable staff.’

The conflict between teachers and district deepened when MFT filed a civil injunction against MPS for denying accommodation requests to work from home. MFT also filed an unfair labor practice with the Public Employment Relations Board against MPS for making contract changes without bargaining in reference to changing grade placements for teachers.

“The District should not be permitted to implement a reopening plan that forces at-risk educators to choose between their jobs and their health, nor should it be allowed to reassign staff prior to following contractual safeguards, violations that will in many cases be impossible to reverse one instruction has begun,” MFT’s injunction filing states.

MFT had a victory on January 31st in Hennepin County District Court when Judge Susan Robiner ruled in their favor, stating that MPS cannot deny staff work from home accommodations. This ruling applied both to staff who already have accommodations set or who are in the process of requesting them. Teachers remaining in distance learning will no longer be required to work from the school building under this ruling.

“We can still get back safely, but we need to be really thoughtful, we need to be organized, and we have to be working together. The way this is happening is so offensive and wrong to all the human beings on the ground floor,” said Callahan

Regardless of the mixed reactions this plan has received, Minneapolis students will return to classrooms on February 8th. “Giving families the option to have their children return to in-person learning is not a political issue, despite what some may say,” the district said in a message to families on January 14th. “It is about what is best for students. Schools and teachers are the foundation of stability for many of our students…All along I have stated that I am – we are – trying to balance two equally important values throughout this pandemic: The health and safety of staff and students and the need to provide students with an educational experience that will lay an academic foundation for their future success.”

“Is it 100% safe? Can I guarantee that no one will become ill? No. But I can guarantee that we have worked diligently to mitigate that happening to the greatest extent possible,” Graff said. “We did not come to this decision lightly and it is not set in stone. If COVID-19 infections rise significantly, we will reassess,” the district’s message to families said.

To learn more about the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Educational Support professionals, go to https://www.mft59.org/ or MFT 59 on Facebook

To learn more about MPS In person or Distance Learning, go to https://sites.google.com/mpls.k12.mn.us/2020-21/english?authuser=0

This story was originally published on South High School on February 7, 2021.