Union says teachers being left out of reopening discussions by some MN school districts

Teachers in Minnetonka are among those calling for changes to the district's reopening plan.

Students and educators in Minnesota "deserve better" than what's been happening at some school districts as they plan to reopen this fall during the COVID-19 pandemic, the state's leading teachers union has said.

Education Minnesota President Denise Specht told BMTN that in some school districts, the local teachers union has been included in discussions about reopening plans, but that's not happening everywhere.

In the Minnetonka Public School District, the Minnetonka Teachers Association (MTA) is calling for changes in the district's hybrid learning plan, which the school board approved during a six-hour meeting on Aug. 6, after being left out of discussions. 

The Minnetonka Teachers Association (MTA), which represents 768 teachers, wrote a letter to the school board and Superintendent Dennis Peterson saying they believe the plan needs to be re-evaluated "in light of real flaws in the plan's design and due to comments made at the meeting that were both misleading and showed a callous disregard for the health of the school community."

Peterson has come under fire for several comments he made during the school board meeting, including stating the flu is riskier than COVID-19 – a claim health experts have refuted since the pandemic started. 

MTA's letter says the comments make the teachers "seriously question the district's commitment to health and safety inside its buildings" and ask that the teachers "be afforded a closer examination of the district's safety plans."

"The decision to proceed without public input, or even an opportunity for close examination by licensed staff to review the plan in advance, demonstrates a lack of transparency and will erode trust in both the strategy and the leadership of Minnetonka Public Schools," the letter says.

Specht echoed a similar sentiment, stating that reopening safely won't work unless the plan has support from the entire school community, noting that co-creating these plans takes time and trust from everyone – students, families, administrators and educators. 

"But there can’t be much trust when administrators and school board members deny educators a chance to give meaningful input, present incomplete plans to parents, and spread conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus," Specht said.  

Peterson isn't the only public school official who has been criticized following comments made during reopening plan discussions. Earlier this month, Bloomington Public Schools board member Beth Beebe, as she argued for kids to return to in-person school this fall, cited dubious treatments for COVID-19 featured in a viral video that was removed from social media sites for violating misinformation rules.

The MTA in its letter to Minnetonka noted there are strengths in the reopening plan, but they don't believe it conforms to the requirements laid out in Gov. Tim Walz's executive order. The union also says there are "many deficiencies and unrealistic expectations in the model, including the middle-level plan and special education plan."

The union says it is "committed to working collaboratively, honestly and transparently with the district to create a plan that is safe, respectful and assures an excellent educational experience for all."

"We look forward to working together to develop a plan, grounded in the latest science, that the MTA can support," the letter concludes. "However, this plan must take into account the known risks facing children, staff, families and our community as we educate Minnetonka students during this pandemic."

MTA President Ann Hersman told BMTN on Wednesday that since the Aug. 6 school board meeting she's had "productive and responsive meetings with the administration, and I feel we're getting back on the path toward a realistic plan that includes more authentic co-creation with educators.

"The norms we, as teachers, set right now with the administration are important and they must carry forward into the future," she added. "The teachers of the MTA expect continuous input and a transparent process as the changing COVID-19 pandemic will almost certainly force our district – and others – to adapt over the 2020-21 school year.”

Meanwhile, teachers in the Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose School District were also left out of discussions about reopening plans, according to tweets from Specht. Teachers in that district attended the Aug. 10 school board meeting, demanding they be part of the conversation on how to reopen safely.

This school district plans to make a decision about reopening later this month, KSTP said.

 Here's Specht's full statement to BMTN: 

“School buildings are not going to reopen in a safe and sustainable way this fall until the virus-safety plans have the support from the whole school community, including students, parents and educators. Co-creating these plans will take time and trust on all sides. But there can’t be much trust when administrators and school board members deny educators a chance to give meaningful input, present incomplete plans to parents, and spread conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus. During this crisis, Minnesota students and educators deserve better than what we have seen coming from some – but not all – administrative offices this month. 

Education Minnesota urges school districts throughout the state to take the time to get this right because the dangers of getting this wrong are so high. Literally, people in our school communities and their families could die needlessly. Administrators shouldn’t feel bullied by a start date someone wrote on a school calendar long before COVID-19 sent more than 4,000 Minnesotans to the hospital. School board members can take the time they need this fall to gather the PPE and other resources and create thorough plans with meaningful input from parents, educators and community leaders. There’s no need to rush. Open the buildings only when it’s safe for students to learn and staff to work. The health of our state depends on the decisions we make in the next few weeks.” 

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