ST. PAUL — Minnesota teachers on Thursday, July 23, rallied at the Capitol to urge the Walz administration to opt for distance learning this fall or put up significant resources to help schools with cleaning and adapting if they're asked to return to the classroom.

Education Minnesota, the state's largest teachers' union, on Thursday, highlighted the results of a survey of 20,524 educators. And 49% of those surveyed said they'd prefer to use distance learning in the fall as compared to 46% who said they would be open to full-time or part-time in-classroom learning.

Educators of color and Indigenous educators reported higher rates of preference for continuing distance learning, rather than in-person courses in the fall as compared to their white peers. Sixty percent of educators of color said that they would prefer distance learning, while 49% of white teachers said they supported distance learning.

Educators, support and janitorial staff and parents at a news conference on the Capitol complex said they would seek additional cleaning, spacing, personal protective equipment and support funding for schools if the state opted to return students to classrooms for the 2020-2021 school year. And dozens of cars and vans with posters and painted windows snaked around the Capitol Thursday to highlight teachers' concerns about returning without adequate health and safety measures.

“There is a high level of worry and among educators, it spans many levels, they’re worried about their students and their ability to meet their needs in the coming school year, they’re worried about the learning that was lost, they’re worried about the trauma that they face, they’re worried about the students they didn’t hear from during distance learning,” Education Minnesota President Denise Specht said. “And educators are worried about themselves. They’re working hard, they’re not expendable, but they feel that way.”

Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday, July 30, is set to announce how Minnesota schools will conduct the 2020-2021 academic year. Ahead of the announcement, the Department of Education has asked schools to prepare for three options: going back to in-person instruction, distance learning and a combination of both.

Last month, the department surveyed Minnesota parents and found that 64.3% supported sending their kids back for in-classroom instruction during the 2020-2021 academic year. But the informal study was conducted before the state saw cases of COVID-19 climb again and before the governor instituted a facemask mandate for public indoor spaces.

Minnesota educators set up chairs spaced six feet apart to illustrate how they would have to set up a classroom if students returned to schools in the fall. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service
Minnesota educators set up chairs spaced six feet apart to illustrate how they would have to set up a classroom if students returned to schools in the fall. Dana Ferguson / Forum News Service

The issue has fueled partisan divisions at the Capitol, with Republicans pushing to let local districts decide how they want to resume instruction. Walz on Wednesday said his goal was to get students back into the classroom when it was safe to do so.

"It won't necessarily look the same everywhere but the outcomes need to be the same: Kids and staff safe in that learning environment," he said.

As education officials consider allowing students return to the classroom, teachers, school staff and parents said they would have to adopt a new normal of socially distancing students, wearing masks, allowing 30 minutes to clean each classroom between passing periods and learning how to teach through face shields or other protective equipment.

Specht said school districts were weighing buying dozens of new buses to get students to their classrooms, already struggling to find the cleaning products they need and having issues ethically with pulling personal protective equipment that health officials have said is in short supply.

“Worry and anxiety are the words of the day about this," Specht said.

Sizi Goyah, a math teacher in Brooklyn Center, highlighted the data from teachers of color and Indigenous educators who said they would feel more comfortable continuing distance learning out of concerns about their health, the health of a family member or of students. Communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in Minnesota.

"We all want safe learning places, I still want to teach my students, but I urge Gov. Walz and all administrators who make decisions about how our students learn to consider this question through the lens of racial equity and justice," Goyah said.