Concerns for Oct. 5 return to school arise

School board will meet to discuss hybrid plans

Photo+illustration+by+Talia+Lissauer.+Park+is+taking+precautions+to+prevent+the+spread+of+COVID-19+such+as+wearing+face+masks%2C+following+social+distancing+guidelines+and+the+use+of+dividers+in+the+classroom.+Park+is+planning+to+transition+to+a+hybrid+model+Oct.+5.+

Talia Lissauer

Photo illustration by Talia Lissauer. Park is taking precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 such as wearing face masks, following social distancing guidelines and the use of dividers in the classroom. Park is planning to transition to a hybrid model Oct. 5.

Talia Lissauer and Maddie Schutte

As Oct. 5, the scheduled return to hybrid for grades 3-12 quickly approaches, Superintendent Astein Osei said he plans to share the concerns he has received from both teachers and families at the upcoming board meeting Sept. 29. 

“What I plan on doing is being very transparent publicly about the concerns and about the fear and the desire to not come back in hybrid,” Osei said. “I’m also going to be very public about the communications I have been receiving from families, because they are stakeholders as well, regarding their dissatisfaction with our current model.”

Osei’s recommendation for hybrid was approved by the school board Aug. 10 based on the data and information available then. Until they receive data that suggests a need for change, the commitment to return on Oct. 5 will stay as is, according to Osei. 

Terry Franklin, a parent to a Park student, said social interactions play a crucial role in the education process which students are missing out on during distance learning. Therefore, Franklin believes it is important that students return to school.

“When you’re in a class setting, in a group setting, you have the opportunity to learn from the other students because maybe they have questions that you don’t have,” Franklin said. “I just think that that sort of social interaction, that ability to talk to friends, I think it helps with a better attitude. And you know, a more positive experience overall versus it being so disconnected.”

There’s a lot of drawbacks to doing distance learning, but at the same time, you’re safe and alive, and I can’t necessarily say that’s going to be true if you’re on site in school”

— Jennifer Puzzo

French teacher Kyle Sweeney, a teacher’s union representative, said she feels as though the various concerns the union has found with the return to school have been pushed aside by the administration. Now with less than two weeks before the first day of hybrid, Sweeney said more time to prepare is a necessity. 

“Once Oct. 5 started approaching very quickly, the district hadn’t really specified to teachers how (hybrid) is going to work,” Sweeney said. “Some ideas were proposed that were very unrealistic, not all teachers had cleaning supplies even for the Park Connections meetings. So we were like, ‘wait are we really ready to come back in person?’”

In a survey taken by teachers across the district, 85.2% of the 311 Park teachers who voted said that more time is needed before the district returns to school with the hybrid model. 97.4% of teachers surveyed also voted in favor of creating a distance learning academy, which would group students and teachers who choose to opt into distance learning together. According to Sweeney, the concerns represented in the survey have yet to be acknowledged. 

“From what I know of the superintendent, I would say he’s doing his best to collect perspectives. But at the same time, it feels like teachers have been dismissed,” Sweeney said. “Because there was no reaction to the fact that so many teachers said, ‘No, we need more time.’” 

Osei said he hopes teachers’ fear about returning to hybrid will subside as they start teaching in the model.

“There’s this fear of the pandemic itself and that’s a very real thing, I get that. I’ve also observed that as I talk to superintendents from across the metro area,” Osei said. “That this was a similar experience for them when before going back (teachers were scared), and then once adults and students actually got back in and followed all the safety protocols and expectations, the fear dissipated.”

Middle school and high school French teacher Jennifer Puzzo has a heightened concern for COVID-19, as both her son and husband are considered high risk. After taking this issue to Human Resources, Puzzo said she wasn’t satisfied with her options. 

“(Human Resources) hears what I’m saying, but there’s nothing they can do about what I’m saying, unless I want to take a family leave, the Family and Medical Leave (FMLA), which would basically allow me to do eight weeks of partial pay, and then no more,” Puzzo said. 

Both Sweeney and Puzzo said they would like to see teachers with personal health concerns, or family health concerns, given an option to be able to stay distanced. Grades K-12 are allowed to opt into distance learning, but teachers have not been given that option, according to Sweeney and Puzzo. 

Sweeney said teachers taking a leave of absence out of fear of returning to school is a very likely possibility, as she has seen the concerns for safety continue to lack what she considers to be proper acknowledgment. 

“I think a lot of teachers are kind of waiting it out, because we’re in disbelief that we’re actually going into hybrid,” Sweeney said. “I don’t know if teachers will go and see if they feel safe. See how the environment is. Or maybe teachers will wait until that Friday before, I just don’t know. But I think a handful will do that. I think that’s going to put the district in a really tough position.”

Puzzo said she recognizes the disadvantages of staying in distance learning and isn’t making connections to her students online. However, she said she doubts Park’s ability to keep students and staff safe when returning to campus. 

 “There’s a lot of drawbacks to doing distance learning, but at the same time, you’re safe and alive, and I can’t necessarily say that’s going to be true if you’re on-site in school,” Puzzo said.

What I plan on doing is being very transparent publicly about the concerns and about the fear and the desire to not come back in hybrid”

— Astein Osei

Although the spread of COVID-19 still threatens students and staff, Franklin said the advantages the hybrid model poses to a student’s education is greater than when they are distance learning. 

“I’m confident that they’ve done everything they can to keep the students safe,” Franklin said. “Obviously (COVID-19) is a concern, but I feel that the benefits of returning to school outweigh the risk.”

Osei said he is working to find the best way to balance the requests that he has received from not only the teachers, but from students and families as well, when communicating with the school board at the next meeting. 

“I’m trying to understand and get a sense of what teachers need, I’m trying to sense what parents and guardians need and I’m leaning into the survey feedback that I got from students last spring about what they want,” Osei said. “I’m negotiating all those things. I’m trying to figure out what is the appropriate thing to do that does the best job at converging the interests of all of the stakeholders in our organization.

The school board meeting to discuss hybrid will be held on Sept. 29 and is live-streamed on the St. Louis Park Public Schools YouTube channel