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Minnesota teachers face the weird new world of school without students

Teachers and paraprofessionals' health, safety, and livelihood are on the line as the state transitions into remote learning.

Teachers and paraprofessionals' health, safety, and livelihood are on the line as the state transitions into remote learning. Leila Navidi, Star Tribune

Right now, while the rest of us are hopefully hunkering down and flattening the coronavirus curve, teachers across Minnesota are being forced to reimagine and revolutionize their jobs in a matter of days.

If quarantine is still in full swing and schools remain closed past March 27, they’re going to have to teach Minnesota’s 900,000 or so students from afar. Their job for the next week is figuring out how.

Several teachers and paraprofessionals (or "paras," for short) from across the metro area spoke with City Pages about some of the challenges they’re facing, and their concerns. They all asked to remain anonymous, for fear of facing punishment (even job loss) for criticizing their districts. But that’s not the only thing they’re afraid of.

A teacher from Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools, for example, says staff have been required to report to their buildings through Friday. The problem is, she was potentially exposed to the virus through a family member. She brought her concerns to the administration, hoping she could use her laptop to virtually connect with colleagues and plan from home. She says she was welcome to do so—as long as she took sick leave.

“I don’t have any sick time left,” she says. “And I can’t afford to take any unpaid time…. People don’t want me here, and it makes it harder to do my job.” She’s been self-quarantining in her classroom ever since.

An email to staff from Superintendent Teri Staloch said that if staff were ill, had an underlying health condition, or needed to care for someone who was ill, they were “welcome” to use sick leave. Otherwise, they should use PTO. Staff were also asked to meet in groups no larger than 10 people.

There’s another issue—kids. The Prior Lake-Savage teacher has some of her own, and she suspects having them at home while she’s trying to teach will effectively raise her class size from 24 to 26.

Another teacher from Anoka-Hennepin, which is still technically on spring break right now, says employees in the state's largest school district were given permission to bring their kids with them to work on Monday, when they are expected to report to the building.

She has her misgivings about how well that will work.

“If I’m supposed to bring my child, my child is going to be in a room with a bunch of other kids,” she says. Not exactly what health experts are recommending for the days and weeks ahead.

And it won’t just be the staff’s kids. Anoka-Hennepin is also providing childcare for the children of first responders and health care workers, who are on the front lines of the crisis. As of Wednesday afternoon, Superintendent David Law reported there were just under 450 children set to receive care at the districts’ schools, provided by people who’d ordinarily be doing transportation or paraprofessional work.

“That’s about 1 to 2 percent of our student population,” he says. “Many people prefer to keep their kids at home.”

He says he understands that’s scary for a lot of people—parents and staff included. He knows everyone would “prefer” to not have to interact with a bunch of strangers, or do a job they didn't necessarily sign up for. But this is a “historic time,” and there’s not much else to be done.

The Anoka-Hennepin teacher gets it. Administrators are trying to do their best with the information and resources available. A lot of districts are making these decisions in real time, adjusting later when things don’t work. South St. Paul Public Schools has been sending several updates a day to its staff for the last two days, outlining which emplyees should report to work (custodial staff and part-time employees included), and which can stay home.

“We are meeting to discuss plans for next week,” spokesperson Susan Brott said in a statement. “Some non-licensed staff may need to help with food distribution, outreach, [and] collaboration with teachers to help create distance learning plans, etc.”

As of 4 p.m. on Tuesday, “all SSPPS staff” were given “options” for work location and responsibilities, including staying home and taking online professional development programs to make up for lost time.

The situation can be uniquely tough on paras and teaching assistants—usually lower-income, hourly workers. A paraprofessional at Lionsgate Academy, a public charter in Minnetonka, says that she and several of her co-workers have “underlying health conditions” making them more vulnerable to the virus, but they have no option to work from home.

“I was basically told by HR that I have nothing to offer other than my physical labor of cleaning, laminating... and that doesn’t translate to work-from-home,” she says. She’s had the flu twice this year, so PTO is no longer an option.

“I know this is an unprecedented time, and most schools and companies are doing their best to figure this out, but it is frustrating to feel like I have to choose between my health or my income,” she says. “What it comes down to is that the money they use to pay my salary is still there, and they have chosen not to use it.”

Lionsgate didn’t respond to requests, either, so it’s hard to say what exactly the school’s plan is for its teachers and paras. For now, most seem to be collectively holding their breath, waiting for the next announcement, news update, or snag.

Pretty much everyone wishes they were back in school.

“I know students who don’t have the best home life,” the Prior Lake-Savage teacher said. “Everyone’s a little on edge.”

More than anything, she says, she wishes she could tell them when they’ll be together again. But that’s the one thing nobody knows.

Update: After this article was published, a spokesperson from Prior Lake-Savage sent City Pages a memo sent out to staff on Wendesday. It included an updated work plan beginning Thursday, in which teachers had the option to work from home.