Nick Faber: Why we can’t go back to school in St. Paul right now

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to start a new school year in distance learning. It’s heartbreaking not only for St. Paul students who miss their classmates and the families juggling work and childcare needs. Educators are hurting too. We know in-person learning is best and we want to be in school with our students.

But we want our students, and the communities they live in, to be safe. I know leaders and administrators in Saint Paul Public Schools want the same thing. District personnel worked tirelessly with union members throughout the summer ordering hand sanitizer, cleaner and personal protective equipment, adjusting room layouts to accommodate social distancing, creating plans for serving food, moving students and checking ventilation.

Unfortunately, it’s not going to be enough to bring students back into the buildings safely, even in a hybrid model. It’s not the fault of the district or the educators it employs. Decades of disinvestment in public education and a failed federal response to the pandemic are to blame.

Per-pupil aid to Minnesota schools, in real dollars, has slipped by as much as $2,000 over the past two decades. The U.S. Senate refuses to pass nearly one trillion dollars in aid to help states, school districts and local governments to stabilize their budget — Minnesota stands to receive $1.3 billion in education funding from the HEROES Act. And while our public schools and families suffer, billionaires are getting richer and refuse to pay their fair share. In just three weeks between March 18 and April 10, 2020, the wealth held by the nation’s billionaires increased by $282 billion, an almost 10 percent gain, to $3.23 trillion, according to a report from the Institute for Policy Studies.

The problem isn’t that there’s no money for schools, the problem is that money is concentrated in the wrong places. And yet, schools are supposed to pull off the impossible – reopen school buildings and keep everyone in them safe — without the staff or resources to do it.

We don’t have enough money to hire enough people for active screenings. There isn’t enough space to properly distance our students in the schools or on the buses. We don’t have money to bring our buildings up to the national Centers for Disease Control for air quality or to install extra handwashing stations. There isn’t a nurse or health aide in every building. We don’t have nearly enough bilingual interpreters or mental health supports for our students and families during the very confusing and often stressful hybrid scheduling. The logistics of that scheduling, with teachers trying to teach in person and give online content on the days students are not present will become confusing for educator and student alike, causing more of each to lose faith in SPPS.

Our students could lose even more in-person learning time if we don’t do this right and reopen too soon. We also know that parents want stability, especially now, so when we reopen the buildings we want them to stay open. The COVID-19 crisis has already highlighted something educators already knew – the glaring inequities people of color and low-income families face every day. We need to end those disparities, not make them worse.

Equity needs to be front and center during this crisis. It’s not only important to follow public health guidelines and deploy tools to prevent the spread of COVID-19. We must listen to the concerns of all parents, students and educators in Saint Paul, not just the loudest few.

The district’s second guiding principle is “prioritize community well-being, including the social emotional and physical health needs of students and staff.” We shouldn’t be rushing into hybrid, especially in a district that serves mostly families of color. Communities of color are being hit disproportionately hard by COVID-19 infections.

We must remember that parents and educators ultimately want the same thing – a quality education for our children. Public schools want to provide the services that children and families depend on. But without funding to put the proper safety procedures and protocols in place, educators, school staff and children – especially communities of color — will be in harm’s way.

Nick Faber is president of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators.

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