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A Letter to the Commissioner of Education

Numerous teachers across the United States are nervous about going back to school. Some states or districts have not made a decision about how instruction will be given, whether in-person like regular, a hybrid model, or a continuation of distance learning. Other teachers are trying to figure out how to socially distance and enforce face mask rules within their classrooms. A colleague of mine was able to articulate the questions teachers and school personnel are having in a succinct manner as she wrote to the Commissioner of Education in Minnesota. The following is her letter.

Hello Commissioner,

Thank you for all you have done for Minnesota schools during this crisis. It has been difficult, as you know, but I appreciate the work and guidance we have gotten from the state. My name is Sarah, I teach in Duluth, I am the chairperson of the board of directors, and I am on a committee to plan for school in the fall; but before we can plan adequately, I have some questions that need answers because the answers to those questions will affect how we plan.

We have been told to plan for three possibilities: distance learning, everyone-back-at-school learning, or a hybrid of the two. Seeing that some teachers will not be returning because of their health or age or a combination of the two, it seems reasonable to expect a hybrid model. Will schools be provided with regular covid testing for teachers and students?

I understand that many people want schools to open so parents can work uninterrupted. Will the state be asking or requiring employers to sacrifice or contribute in any way so that schools can educate students safely?

If we are directed to go back to school and teach in the traditional way, will school districts be vulnerable to lawsuits from teachers who do not want to quit, but do not want to risk their health or lives to come back to school?

If we are directed to go back to school in an in-person or hybrid model, what if our space is not conducive to following CDC and MDH recommendations for mitigating risk? For example, I work in a beautiful old building in downtown Duluth. It's charming but the air circulation system is less than ideal, the windows don't open, and we have one custodian. How can we ensure that our space is safe during this covid time? Who will be in charge of sanitizing? Will the state set guidelines for sanitation? How will we pay for that? As you know, my school along with many other schools are operating on extremely tight budgets. We couldn't even offer teachers a raise this year when we passed the FY21 budget in June as per state law. Will staff be tasked with the extra sanitation duties? If so, will the state increase funding to pay for that? In early March we were told to sanitize surfaces several times a day but couldn't get supplies to do so. I started a go-fund-me to buy supplies, but even if I had the money, the supplies were not readily available. Will the state ensure that all schools have sanitation supplies they need?

If we open for all-student learning at school or in a hybrid model, staff may be exposed to covid. If that happens, they and everyone else exposed will be required to quarantine for 14 days. Will teachers have to use their sick days to cover that or will they just have to go without pay? What if we can't find substitutes to cover classes? Will student absences due to quarantine be counted against the attendance funding we receive from the state?

Because of our low budget and the requirement for charter schools to hold 20% of their general funds in the bank, our benefits package is not great. Staff get 5 paid sick days. My personal health insurance package has a 6,500 dollar deductible. If I have to miss more than 5 days for illness I will then miss out on salary and will have to pay health expenses out of pocket until I reach the 6,500 deductible. This added to premiums I pay (increasing 8% this year) for dependents means that I could potentially lose tens of thousands of dollars if I take the risk of exposing myself and my family to covid. For some in my position, the risk will not be worth it. Will there be a fund provided by the state to help educators if they get sick and medical bills pile up so they don't have to declare bankruptcy? What happens if we lose teachers because they don't want to endure the risks?

Our school, and I imagine many schools in Minnesota, don't have the furniture to ensure social distancing. My kids sit in pods of four, so unless we have 25% of the kids in the building at a time, we will not be able to adequately social distance. Will the state be providing funding to schools to buy furniture that is conducive to social distancing? Will the state provide funding so students don't have to share supplies?

If we have a hybrid plan or a distance learning plan, students will need the technology to access it. Luckily my school already had 1:1 laptops that they were able to take home with them when we started distance learning. However, some students and staff do not have adequate access to the internet. Will the state ensure that the internet is available and affordable for all students and staff? For example, I pay for satellite internet because I live in a rural area. I pay 165 dollars a month for what they call the "unlimited" package, but it is not actually unlimited. After a certain amount of usage, the access is throttled. That seems like a very high price to pay for throttled internet and some of our students (and staff) can't afford it.

As I said before, I expect we will be operating under a hybrid plan at least until 2021 which means that students and staff will have to share space together sometimes. Will there be funding to pay for PPE for teachers and students? Will each school, teacher, and student be supplied with masks and face shields or the funding to pay for masks and face shields? If so, when will we know about the details?

What if we have students who refuse to follow guidelines for PPE or social distancing? Would it be appropriate to suspend those students?

If (hopefully) a treatment, vaccine, or prophylactic is discovered, will educators and students be provided with this treatment at no cost?

What is the infection rate at which the state would close schools? What is an acceptable fatality rate? Will teachers be compensated for accepting increased risk (hazard pay)? Perhaps educators could be eligible for socialized health care through this crisis and beyond much like military personnel.

Lastly, I would like to know definitions for the following terms so we are all informed about what we are actually talking about. What is the state's definition of the following terms as applicable to the covid crisis in schools: safety, risk, quarantine, masks, social distancing, high-risk-group, reasonable, discretion, sanitized. We need to be in agreement on what those terms mean when we discuss these issues.

I understand these are difficult questions and this is a very difficult situation we are all in. I look forward to learning more about the guidance from the state and hope my questions will be answered.

Wishing you good health, Sarah

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