Back order of upgraded air filters prevents school district from reopening PreK-2 classrooms

By Casey Ek

The Saint Paul Public Schools welcomed roughly 500 special education and special sites students back to their classrooms on the week of October 19. The opening heralded the first stage of the proposed four-stage implementation of hybrid learning for all district students.

Four days later, district administrators decided to postpone Stage 2, which would have welcomed all students in grades PreK-2 to a hybrid of in-person and distance learning beginning November 16. District officials are now looking at November 30 as a possible start date for hybrid learning in the primary grades. That decision will be announced on October 30.

What is preventing the implementation of hybrid learning for the roughly 9,800 primary students is the lack of enough air filters with MERV 11 ratings. Air filters with MERV 11 ratings can catch 10 times the amount of coronavirus particles circulating in the air. All district buildings currently in operation have adequate supplies of MERV 11 filters, but due to a national back order, the filters needed to safely open the additional PreK-2 buildings have not been delivered.

The school district is making progress in ensuring the safety of staff and students who return to in-person learning. However, teachers continue to have concerns.

Nick Faber, president of the Saint Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), said that he and his colleagues have borne a large share of the burden for coming up with ways to keep classrooms safe. “We feel like there’s been a lack of creativity (on the school district’s part) in finding solutions that we can work with,” Faber said on October 22.

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In a practice run, Jie Ming Academy custodian John Washington disinfected a classroom set up for social distancing if and when in-person instruction returns. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Whether hybrid learning begins or not, the district appears to be in a no-win situation, according to School Board member Steve Marchese. “If you look at the comments and the emails we’re getting from families,” he said, “it’s clear that the best we can do is make somebody unhappy.”

 

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 The main sticking points in negotiations between the district and teachers have been the safety of students and staff and the expected workload for teachers in the hybrid model, he said. The district appears to have addressed one of the teachers union’s concerns in the pursuit of upgraded air filtration systems. In its October 23 announcement, district administrators said they already have 8,000 MERV 11 air filters but need to have a total of 10,000.

Lisa Carrigan, the principal of the district’s Bridgeview and Focus Beyond special education programs, was thrilled with her students’ return to the classroom last week. After months of distance learning, she told the School Board on October 20 that “it was incredible” to have the students back. The challenge of keeping them safe with such new protocols as plexiglass barriers and modified student dropoff sites proved to be surmountable, she added.

The school district surveyed the families of the 500 special education and special sites students prior to its decision to implement hybrid learning. The survey, which had a 25 percent response rate, indicated that 39 percent of families felt comfortable or very comfortable transitioning from distance learning to a hybrid model and 26 percent of families felt uncomfortable or very uncomfortable. The top three concerns of the respondents were the district’s plans in the event of COVID-19 exposure, the availability of personal protective equipment and the adoption of an emergency plan in the case of a spike in positive COVID-19 tests.

SPFE past vice president Erica Schatzlein said on October 13 that the union is seeking clarity on health and safety protocols, and it proposed shortening the school day by one hour to give teachers more time to prepare both the in-person and distance-learning portions of their lessons.

Carrigan, who has firsthand knowledge of what it takes to facilitate hybrid learning, said her staff has had to learn how to wear multiple hats under the hybrid learning model, but were taking the challenges in stride.

Faber said that while he is pleased that the 500 Stage 1 students are receiving the individual attention that comes with in-person learning, the true test will come with the return to the classroom of the 9,800 PreK-2 students. “This next round, stage 2, is going to be what our buildings are really like,” he said. “As educators, we want to get back to our students as soon as possible. But at the same time, we didn’t go into this profession to bring harm to our students.”

What about older students?

The school district plans to make a decision on November 30 on whether to implement hybrid learning for students in grades 3-5. If it decides to proceed, the so-called Stage 3 will begin on January 19. Saint Paul Superintendent of Schools Joe Gothard said the seven weeks between the district’s decision and when grades 3-5 students return to class is due to natural breaks in the school calendar as well as a desire to avoid making a premature decision.

“I want to avoid a false start,” Gothard said.

Yet to be scheduled by the district is a decision on Stage 4—hybrid learning for students in grades 6-12—not to mention the decision on whether to shift from hybrid learning to all in-person classes.

Whether hybrid learning begins or not, the district appears to be in a no-win situation, according to School Board member Steve Marchese. “If you look at the comments and the emails we’re getting from families,” he said, “it’s clear that the best we can do is make somebody unhappy.”

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