At 4 a.m. on March 13, the first teacher strike in St. Paul in more than 70 years ended. With little rest, the district negotiations team who had spent days in intense, closed negotiations — after spending weeks and months in public negotiations — went right back to work continuing to plan for an anticipated closure of Minnesota schools due to COVID 19. This planning started weeks before, running concurrently with both negotiations and the daily operation of the state’s second largest school district. When schools were closed the following week, we heard the phrase, “unprecedented times” a lot. We knew things would never be the same; we just didn’t know how different they would be.
Once schools were closed, everyone who doesn’t work in and around public education learned what those of us who do have always known: Schools are deeply connected to the communities they serve. Due to strong leadership and immense talent and operational capacity, Saint Paul Public Schools was well-positioned to respond immediately to community need and did so by repurposing staff duties and restructuring its nutrition services to distribute and deliver, to date, more than 6 million meals to Saint Paul families.
We also delivered tech devices and hot spots and enrichment activities. We provided child care to first responders and essential workers. Educators from Early Childhood through Adult Education moved their classes online. We developed a virtual partnership-based program, Saint Paul Summer Connect, to keep our community close while we had to stay apart.
Relying on data, best practices
All of this proactive, compassionate planning began in late February and ran concurrently with an emotional and contentious teacher strike. What we didn’t know at the time is this planning would also happen alongside our community’s deep and sustained racial reckoning after the killing of George Floyd and the devastating illness and death of Board of Education Chair Marny Xiong. This planning was and is accounting for the deeply personal nature of education and the many ways our families live and work in our community. Reflection and readjustment have been present from the beginning to assess implementation and in real time, change to meet needs in an unpredictable environment. While paying close attention to the feelings connected to school closure, the team has also relied on data, best practices, and expertise from all corners of education and community to ensure not only a good start to the 2020 school year but meaningful transformation of our system of education in the future.
I am fortunate to know this team and watch them work, and the connection to Saint Paul schools runs deep among district administration staff. Many are long-time Saint Paul residents, parents, aunties, and neighbors who have more than a professional stake in how this job gets done – they have personal accountability to their communities and families. No one inside of SPPS is thinking about doing enough to get by; they are thinking about how to make it better – even the best of what is possible in unusual times and whatever lies beyond. Saint Paul Public Schools demonstrated incredible leadership in the early days of the statewide school closure and has shown a remarkable ability to adapt — and it’s precisely because of this track record I am confident as a SPPS parent and Saint Paul school board member that we will meet the challenges ahead.
As district plans roll out, please remember this: Most people are not interested in making a political statement with their back-to-school preference but rather, they are thinking about how to best care for their families. The parent who says I need an in-person school option because I have to be at work to pay the bills and can’t support my child at home during distance learning or who is concerned about learning loss is not a villain, nor is the parent who is fearful that in-person learning exposes members of their family to risk of illness, nor is the educator or nutrition services worker concerned about keeping themselves and their families safe. All these things are true.
And because they are true we can choose to show love and compassion for all our neighbors who are living through the pandemic, the fight against racial injustices, personal grief and losses, and any combination of ongoing health concerns and economic anxiety. We can acknowledge that this is hard for everyone. We can recognize and act on our deep connection and responsibility to one another and decide to do all we can to ease any burdens that may arise with what will be an imperfect and evolving back-to-school plan. Social media victory laps or pointing to a political scoreboard has never taught one child how to read or provided families reliable access to wi-fi, so what we choose to do next and how we choose to treat one another matters a great deal.
In Saint Paul, I’m looking forward to unprecedented collaboration and extraordinary acts of love and kindness in the weeks and months ahead to support our schools. If you believe education is important, stand up and be counted. It’s time to go to work.
Jessica Kopp is a resident of the Midway neighborhood of Saint Paul, a former teacher, and current member of the Saint Paul School Board. This commentary reflects her personal views.
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