St. Paul students walk out in protest of district’s COVID response

Feven Gerezgiher Students at Murray Junior High protest the district’s decision to remain open for in-person learning

Hundreds of St. Paul students walked out of class Tuesday afternoon in protest of the St. Paul Public Schools COVID response. Whereas most neighboring districts temporarily moved to distance learning due to a surge in omicron virus cases, SPPS opted to maintain in-person learning.

“At this point, I don’t think there’s any productive learning going on,” said Karina Bary, senior at Open World Learning Community, a West Side high school. Virtual learning “last year [was] hell,” she said, but in-person learning has proved to be unsafe and unsustainable.

Following the holiday break, junior Maleah Young described the school environment as overwhelming. “I’ve had multiple contacts [with someone who had COVID-19] within the last two weeks. Just hearing about every contact is even more scary,” she said.

Senior Nora Verner said quarantine length policies are unclear and she is concerned about being absences being marked as “unexcused.” She also said she fell two weeks behind on classwork after quarantine because there are no online resources for learning.

According to the SPPS COVID-19 Dashboard, the numbers of positive COVID cases tripled in the last month, from 690 in December to 2,444 in January so far.

Highland Park senior Jerome Treadwell serves as executive director for the student-led nonprofit MN Teen Activists. He helped organize the walkout of middle and high school students district-wide to create urgency around the COVID response.

Their student petition reads, “According to the CDC, the omicron virus is more likely to spread than our previous strands, which we have seen through the surge of cases. However, the omicron virus [surge] is projected to pass in the next few weeks, which is why multiple school districts have gone remote for the next two weeks. It seems to be that SPPS district is attempting to risk students’ lives for the sake of remaining open as the Omicron strand passes.”

Feven Gerezgiher Students at Open World Learning Community walked out in protest

The petition also calls on the district to use COVID relief funds to implement their demands, which include staffing for a full-time nurse at every school.

Top on their list of nine demands is the creation of a publicly available metric to temporarily shift to remote learning. The other demands include:

  • Provide KN95 masks for staff and students and provide surgical masks immediately until more KN95s are available.
  • Provide additional PCR tests for all staff to test twice a week regardless of vaccination status. And explore options to create a faster turnaround for staff to receive test results.
  • Provide antigen or PCR tests for all students to test weekly.
  • Provide each school with a sufficient supply of take-home Covid-19 tests to provide to any student exhibiting cold or flu symptoms and any student, staff member, or school volunteer who requests one.
  • Continue contact tracing and notifying individuals who have been a close contact and quarantining according to MDH guidelines. 
  • For individuals who test positive for COVID-19, maintain the 10 day isolation period or require two negative antigen tests to return to school/work sooner.
  • Allow schools to create a modified daily schedule to meet the needs of the students in the safest, most educationally sound manner.
  • Call on the city and county to support SPPS in finding solutions to make sure our students and families are safe.

SPPS spokesperson Kevin Burns said the district “respects students’ rights to free speech and peaceful assembly” and listed measures being taken to ensure wellness for all students and staff.

“In addition to offering weekly COVID-19 tests for all staff in our buildings, and providing take-home tests for students showing symptoms of COVID-19, SPPS is also taking additional steps to help ensure the health and wellness of all students and staff, including:

  • Making medical grade and N95 masks available for all staff members; these masks have also been ordered for students
  • Ordering additional rapid tests for staff and student use
  • Developing school-by-school metrics to determine if/when a building should temporarily
    shift to virtual learning
  • Continuing isolation and quarantine of students and staff per the district’s updated
  • Continuing to hold weekly vaccine clinics at 360 Colborne and Gordon Parks High
    School, as well as other community-hosted clinics
  • Continuing to require masks for everyone in our buildings
  • Pausing non-essential activities including in-person school tours and field trips”

Shortly before the students’ protest Tuesday afternoon, the district sent an email to families informing them a school would move to remote learning when 25% or more of its classroom teachers are absent.  Treadwell said that metric does not include students nor non-teaching staff, which he says are more likely to be People of Color.

Yasmina Banat, an 8th-grade student at Murray Junior High School, started the petition that now has over 1,500 signatures. She said until their demands are met, SPPS students will continue to protest. “We’re not going to back down until they listen to us,” she said.