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Long wait to reopen St. Paul schools ends Monday

31January 2021

Elementary schools throughout St. Paul will open their doors to students Monday for the first time in 47 weeks.

The state’s second-largest district is among the last to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. The chance to learn from others’ mistakes, along with declining Ramsey County cases and a growing scientific consensus around prioritizing in-person instruction for younger students, gives Superintendent Joe Gothard confidence it can be done safely.

“We really believe that we can control the introduction and certainly the spread of COVID-19 in our schools,” he told families in a video chat last week. “I’m convinced that St. Paul Public Schools can do this.”

MOST ST. PAUL STUDENTS OUT OF SCHOOL SINCE MARCH 9

Since March 9, the last day most St. Paul students were in school, the district’s youngest learners have lost four days of instruction to a teacher strike and had 15 more days canceled so that teachers could prepare — first for the transition to distance learning, and now back to in-person instruction.

Students in grades 2 and under come back Monday and will be joined two weeks later by grades 3-5.

Middle and high school students, who are more likely to spread the virus, will remain in distance learning for the foreseeable future, although limited in-school support could start soon if county case rates drop a little further.

Jim Vue was one of four St. Paul school board members who voted in favor of reopening, with two opposed. He said long-term harm will come from keeping students out of school for so long.

“I have kids with special needs, and some of those services just aren’t happening during distance learning,” he said in an interview.

In the St. Paul district, high schoolers failed 34 percent of their first-quarter classes and middle schoolers 29 percent. Distance learning grades were substantially worse for students of color.

Still, many now eligible to return are waiting to do so. Parents for 38 percent of the district’s students in grades 5 and under have chosen to keep their children learning from home — including 52 percent of Asian-American students.

UNION OPPOSED

The St. Paul Federation of Educators has been encouraging families to make that choice and pressuring district leaders to postpone the reopening.

The union has raised numerous concerns, from a lack of space for the recommended 3 feet of social distancing in some classrooms to new air filters that may not trap coronavirus-sized particles.

Well over 1,000 teachers in the district should have received their first shot of a vaccine by Monday, but it’ll be a few weeks before that group is fully protected.

Union president Nick Faber said Friday morning that in a vote of union members, around 93 percent expressed no confidence in the district’s health and safety plan. That plan complies with state guidelines, but Faber said the district should take extra steps considering some 80 percent of those enrolled in St. Paul are students of color, and their families have been getting sick with COVID-19 and dying at relatively high rates.

“We’re heading back into buildings on Monday with a staff that is deeply concerned about the educational value of the plan going forward and the safety for themselves and their students,” Faber said.

Unlike Chicago’s union, Faber said Friday, St. Paul teachers will not vote to defy the district and continue working from home. He said such a move would be an “illegal work stoppage.”

STATE GUIDANCE

St. Paul is bringing elementary students back with no limits on classroom capacity under an amended Safe Learning Plan issued by state officials in December.

That plan includes extra precautions, including providing teachers both face masks and face shields, keeping students in their classrooms to eat, having them wear masks during gym class and participating in optional on-site testing for staff every two weeks.

But not every classroom is large enough to allow for 3 feet between desks.

The head-start on vaccinations, thanks to state officials who prioritized school employees even as many seniors are entering weekly vaccine lotteries, was a bonus for St. Paul and other schools.

“I was absolutely shocked,” Gothard said, when the Minnesota Department of Education told him he could invite 2,049 employees to sign up for a mass vaccination event that began Thursday. He was expecting no more than 200 employees would get shots this time.

Faber said mistakes last week by some school principals, which allowed teachers to make vaccination appointments before colleagues who had greater priority, don’t bode well for the return to in-person instruction.

And while Faber said there are “some decent things” in the district’s safety plan, he said teachers want more time to figure out how to run their classrooms.

State officials required schools to cancel at least two days of instruction to prepare for a return to in-person instruction. St. Paul gave its teachers all of last week.

RESEARCH BACKS RETURN

When St. Paul began the school year in distance learning, it was against the advice of the American Adademy of Pediatrics, which warned of the developmental harm of keeping children out of school.

In time, research studies have strengthened the case for open schools.

Last week, doctors with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, summarizing studies in the United States and elsewhere, found “there has been little evidence that schools have contributed meaningfully to increased community transmission” of the coronavirus.

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the doctors called for continued efforts to allow for safe operation of schools, such as the use of masks, increased classroom air ventilation, more tests to find asymptomatic people and efforts to reduce crowding in schools.

Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy, said on his podcast last week that schools may need to close again someday if the United Kingdom coronavirus variant becomes a problem here. But for now, schools should be open.

“The data have consistently demonstrated that children in schools actually have lower risk of exposures of the virus than actually just in the community,” he said.

CASES FALLING

Statistical trends also favor sending kids back to school.

Ramsey County has seen 36 new coronavirus cases per 10,000 residents over a recent two-week period — down from a November peak of 122.

Under the state’s original guidelines, issued in July, the current rate suggested elementary schools could safely operate at partial capacity.

But the state’s updated plan allows elementary schools to operate at full capacity, no matter how prevalent the virus is in the broader community, as long as they adhere to the mask mandate and other rules.

The percentage of tests coming back positive is way down, too. Last week, just 3.4 percent of tests statewide returned a positive result. The state considers the virus to be under control when test positivity is below 5 percent.

And, although COVID-19 has killed thousands of Minnesota seniors, no school-age children have died. Osterholm observed that the flu has killed an average of four Minnesota children in recent years, but that hasn’t caused schools to close.

“I think the data supports the fact that we can and should open these schools, with all the safety requirements in place that we can possibly put in place,” he said.

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