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As schools work on reopening, teachers’ unions push back

Governor Walz’s announcement in mid-December gave elementary schools permission to operate an in-person learning model starting on January 18 “as long as they are able to implement all updated health and safety measures,” including a rolling start process in which students will gradually be brought back into buildings. Such updated measures include strongly recommending all school staff to wear face shields and face masks together and executing a COVID-19 testing program every other week for all school staff, beginning January 4. Previous guidance, such as students wearing masks and minimizing close contact, remain in effect.

Several school districts have announced plans to bring elementary students back into the classroom, including the Minneapolis and St. Paul public schools that have been under a distance learning model since last spring. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul districts are aiming for February starts, according to the Star Tribune, but their local teachers’ unions are pushing back, citing “safety concerns.” Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis teachers’ union, wants Minneapolis district leadership “to go above and beyond the most basic safety measures required by the state” before elementary students return, such as class-size caps, weekly COVID-19 testing for staff and social distancing protocols, continues the Star Tribune. Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Ed Graff said that returning to schools is not “100% safe,” but he is “100% certai[n] that many of our students are worse off without the option to be back in the classroom with teachers.”

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, an analysis of Minnesota COVID-19 case data from mid-October to December found

that there is no clear association between in-person learning and the county-wide proportion of COVID cases among children ages 5-19. If there is an association, it is slight, and it would suggest that more in-person learning has been associated with less COVID spread among school age children.

MDH notes that caveats to the data exist, but this finding appears to reiterate the findings of other reports and studies that schools are not the super-spreaders they were once feared to be.

While the school reopening debate has persisted for months, we do know there are safe and sensible ways to bring students back into the classroom for in-person instruction. Teachers’ unions know this too, but they also “know a bargaining situation when they see one,” writes Mike Antonucci in The 74.

That’s why for the past 10 months various local and state unions have issued reopening requirements, while the national unions released guidelines and funding demands. As is usually the case, some demands are reasonable, others are not, and still others are bargaining chips to be discarded in exchange for something the unions actually want.

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