Should Minnesota students be learning in-person or, in the face of the highly contagious omicron variant, return to remote learning? School district leaders across the state are struggling with that question.
And in some cases, their decisions are being challenged no matter which choice they make. Unfortunately, in the absence of a statewide benchmark for shifting to remote learning, individual districts or schools are left to try to interpret the science and local infection metrics themselves and make complex, controversial calls. The resulting patchwork is the result of inaction by Gov. Tim Walz and the Legislature.
One of those challenges came in St. Paul earlier this week, when students at several high schools and middle schools walked out in protest after the school board narrowly voted to maintain in-school learning this week and next. The students believe schools should return to remote learning and argued that the district is not doing enough to keep them safe.
Student leaders said they wanted two weeks of distance learning. They also presented a list of demands that included stronger masking and testing protections, and development of a metric to determine when individual schools should shift to remote learning.
District spokesman Kevin Burns told an editorial writer that many of the demands had already been met even before the walkouts. On Tuesday, the district released a plan with a metric: Schools will move to temporary distance learning if more than 25% of teachers are absent.
In a statement, district officials said they support students taking an active role in their health, as well as students' right to free speech. The district has ordered more medical-grade masks and rapid tests for students and staff, and the district is continuing contact tracing.
Burns said that school officials have met with some student leaders and that they intend to meet again, though no date and time had been set on Friday. The district and students differ on the frequency of testing for students and staff, but they should be able to reach a compromise as more general community resources become available for testing.
As of Tuesday, St. Paul Public Schools had reported 2,444 positive cases during January, up from 690 in December. On Friday, the district reported that seven of its 67 schools are opting for distance learning because they met the metric of 25% or more of staff absences.
At those schools, teachers who are able will still report to their buildings and do their work via computer. That's because educators cannot be required to work remotely and in person at the same time, per an agreement between the district and the teachers union.
The St. Paul student protest is part of a national trend. Students from New York City to Chicago to Oakland, Calif., have been adding their voices to those of adults as COVID cases have surged. Local students were assisted by the organizing efforts of Minnesota Teen Activists.
In recent weeks several of Minnesota's largest school districts — Minneapolis, Minnetonka, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale, Osseo, Prior Lake-Savage, Rochester, Robbinsdale and Roseville — have temporarily changed in-person schedules for all or some schools.
In the state's largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, schools have been open for in-person learning. The district requires masks for K-6 students and highly recommends masks for grades 7-12. Next week, the board will consider whether to make any changes in the masking policy, according to a district spokesperson.
Deciding whether to open or close schools is complicated and can cause confusion and frustration for students, families and staff. The patchwork of school options driven by the virus can be tough to follow. But we continue to believe that schools should be among the last of our institutions to shut down face-to-face operations.