'I'm a teacher and I'm scared:' Walz hears concerns about school reopening

Ellen Gurrola hadn't planned to take her concerns about reopening schools straight to Gov. Tim Walz. 

It just happened.

Gurrola said she was taking her son to the dentist in a St. Paul building shared with Community Action Partnership of Ramsey and Washington Counties, where Walz was holding a news conference Thursday morning. As he stepped to the podium, a shout came from the road nearby.

"Gov. Walz, I'm a teacher and I'm scared!" Gurrola said. "Would you talk to me for two minutes?"

Walz ended his remarks and went over to Gurrola and her young son. Gurrola, an eighth-grade science teacher in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, held court for a few minutes and told Walz she was worried that teachers weren't getting much input in the district's plan to start the school year in a hybrid learning model.

"I’m finding out everything parents are finding out. Principals don’t even know. I don’t know what to do," she said.

"I can't put you back into that classroom if it's not safe," Walz said. He told her that teachers should contact the Minnesota Department of Health about specific concerns.

Walz is allowing districts to make their own decisions about how to reopen this fall, though they must stay within strict boundaries set by state health officials. If a virus outbreak happens in the school's community, the state could tell district administrators to move from in-person classes to distance learning.

Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest school district, plans to start Sept. 8 at 50 percent capacity within their buildings.

St. Paul and Minneapolis schools, the state's second- and third-largest districts, have said they'll start the school year with students learning from home.

Because of the changing virus infection rates, districts may not know until late August how they should start the school year in early September, Walz said.

"I would tell teachers, students and parents, I wish there was more certainty around this, but the virus is not allowing that," he told reporters.

Gurrola said she felt Walz listened to her concerns during their brief conversation.

"The elevators opened, and there he was. We drove away and I thought, I have to go back and say something because if I don’t, I’d just have a pit in my stomach," she said. "I figured if I stopped, I knew he’d talk. Overall I feel good about the conversations because he’s able to hear our concerns and know they’re out there. That’s all I wanted." 

Gurrola said she would not feel safe returning to the classroom if the school year started now, but acknowledged it could change over the next month.

"Some teachers in districts are frustrated right now because we feel like we’ve become the enemy when just asking for safe returns that’s all we want," she said.

This week, Walz detailed how he planned to release $256 million in federal funding to school districts. The money is earmarked to cover increased operational costs, pay for cleaning supplies and masks, and cover at-home saliva testing for school employees. (LINK: https://mn.gov/mmb-stat/documents/budget/lac/10-day-federal-crf-review-request-54-56-8-04-2020.pdf)

Minnesota's Legislative Advisory Commission, a panel of lawmakers, can make a recommendation on the spending. But Walz has broad authority to spend federal money through the stimulus package that Congress approved in March.

"My bottom line telling her is, I have the responsibility to make sure no student or no staff are back in classrooms that are unsafe for them, so we have to partner with districts to provide them with those resources," Walz said. "I’m under no illusion. This is going to be hard. This is like a first day of school we’ve never seen."