Students press St. Paul district to go online for two weeks, increase coronavirus protections

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Jan. 18—Students at several St. Paul district schools walked out Tuesday afternoon in support of a two-week shift to online learning and a more robust plan to protect them from the coronavirus.

The walkout was organized by the nonprofit MN Teen Activists. The group's director, Highland Park High School senior Jerome Treadwell, said a survey found students were dealing with inconsistent bus transportation to and from school, classrooms without adult supervision because of absences and worries about infecting family members.

He said the district should do more to educate students about the importance of getting vaccinated and properly wearing face masks in school.

"We do not want to die trying to receive our education," Treadwell told reporters Tuesday morning.

FIVE MN SCHOOLS TEMPORARILY MOVE TO ONLINE INSTRUCTION

At least five large Minnesota school districts have temporarily moved all grades to online instruction because of severe staffing shortages, but most, including St. Paul, remain in-person.

Treadwell said St. Paul should take two weeks to ramp up coronavirus testing for staff and students, acquire more protective face masks, decide on metrics for temporarily closing individual schools and improve the quality of remote instruction.

"Online learning is not ideal for anyone," he said. "We need engaging and innovative learning."

The group's demands largely match those of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, with one key difference: Treadwell said it's important that all staff report to buildings if the district does move to online learning, because the schools must remain open to students who prefer that option or have nowhere else to go.

The school district last week pitched a plan to the teachers union that would have required all healthy employees to report to schools during a two-week shift to online learning. When the union refused to endorse the plan, in part because of that requirement, district leaders announced they were sticking with in-person instruction.

DISTRICT RESPONDS

In response to the planned student walkout, the school district Tuesday morning said it already was working to get more tests and better masks for staff and students, among other health efforts. Facilities Director Tom Parent said 600,000 N95 and disposable medical grade masks are coming next week.

The district also reiterated that school buildings would remain open and fully staffed, even if instruction moves online.

"As a district, it is our responsibility to ensure students who cannot stay home have a safe place to be, with access to food and support for online learning, as well as to provide essential in-person services for students receiving special education," the district said. "Therefore, if any schools move to virtual learning, it will include a requirement that all staff members at the affected site(s) who are not sick or in quarantine report to work."

SHIFT TIED TO ABSENCE RATE

Separately, the district told families Tuesday that it had decided on the circumstances that would cause an individual school to move to online learning: "If on any day, a school has 25% or more of their classroom teachers absent, families will receive a notice from the school. If this absence rate is projected to continue for more than three days, families will be notified about a temporary shift to virtual learning."

Angela Nguyen, a Harding High School junior and walkout organizer, said the current situation isn't good for any student. With so many teachers unable to work, classes are being staffed by subs who can't teach the content, she said.

"I'm very unable to learn, even being in-person," she said.

Meanwhile, students stuck at home aren't getting the teacher support they need, either, Nguyen said.

Although teachers must make class materials available to students online, the school district has a memorandum of agreement with the union that says no teacher will have to teach, respond to or attend to "a group of students in an in-person setting and remote learning setting at the same time."

But St. Paul can't close its schools entirely because of a state law that forbids schools from forcing students into online instruction without an in-person option.

"Students and families cannot be forced to participate in online learning. For this reason, an in-person option must be available," Minnesota Department of Education spokeswoman Ashleigh Norris said. "Additionally, schools are expected to continue to make meals available for all students, and provide transportation and other critical services (such as special education)."

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