Editor’s note: This story was originally published on February 21 and updated in light of the looming March 8 strike deadline. Since the publication of this story, Minneapolis food service workers voted on March 2 to join the fight for increased wages.
Teachers in Minneapolis and St. Paul voted overwhelmingly on February 17 to strike for more equitable pay and mental health support for their students. In Minneapolis, 97% of the 96% of teachers who voted decided to vote to strike. In St. Paul, 78% of the two-thirds of teachers who turned out to vote voted to strike.
This school year has been hard on a lot of teachers, said St. Paul Federation of Educators President Leah VanDassor. Teachers have a hard time supporting students who for the past two years have been relegated to their homes, appearing behind a computer screen as we’ve waited out the pandemic.
Laura Madsen, who teaches special education at Eastern Heights Elementary in St. Paul said the lack of support for their students made it hard for her to teach, particularly during the early days of the pandemic.
“The hardest part was worrying about the students when we were remote and playing social worker a lot of the time, making sure they had food, making sure they were safe. [I] spent a lot more of my time trying to get them internet and their supplies than I did actually teaching for several months,” said Madsen at a teachers’ rally in St. Paul on February 12.
A University of Minnesota study found that although learning is starting to recover with the return of in-student instruction, mental and emotional health support continued to lag. With school now back to in-person learning, teachers contend St. Paul schools want to remove language that provides students and teachers with recess time and limits on class sizes, which could stretch students and teachers to the breaking point.
“Before [the memorandum of agreement that instituted class size caps] I had 12 as my cap and 13 was what I normally had, and it felt like we were in triage all the time. Kids weren’t learning,” said Madsen, adding she now teaches six students with severe and profound disabilities.
“Just think about kids who left during the pandemic, as fifth-graders came back as seventh-graders, seventh-graders came back as ninth-graders, that’s a huge shift in their lives, then they develop mentally and socially—just have really had a lot of setbacks that way,” said VanDassor. “And there’s just not enough people in the school who are trained to recognize that and be able to even route children to correct resources that they need to help them with whatever that happens to be.”
Another point of contention is pay. Sahan Journal reports teachers are asking for a 2.5% increase in pay, as the pay increases failed to keep up with inflation.
Ma-Riah Moody works as an education support professional, supporting students with disabilities before or after school, at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis. “What led me to want to get into this work is because I have children that receive special education services. I myself have received special education services, and I’ve always really enjoyed [it],” said Moody in a phone interview.
For the work she does, she is paid $19.83 per hour for six and a half hours of work per week, without paid time off for spring or summer break. “I don’t get paid very much—my paycheck is like $500. When you take into account winter breaks that we have or spring break, summer breaks, it’s hard for me to afford to stay at my job to be perfectly honest,” said Moody, who is working another job to support adults with disabilities in conjunction with being involved with her union and finishing her undergraduate degree.
Moody also does not feel adequately integrated with the rest of her colleagues, which makes it hard to work with her students. “A lot of us are not a part of staff meetings. You don’t have access to information or documents that we need to be able to work with the students,” said Moody.
As of this writing, the teachers and their respective districts are in mediation, which the districts in statements released on Friday have pledged to continue. If they fail to reach an agreement, the earliest they could strike is March 2. The teachers expect to provide a 10-day notice sometime this week.
If a strike happens in Minneapolis, it would be its first since 1970.
Teachers aren’t the only people looking to strike. On March 2, Minneapolis food service workers, who are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 284, will also vote to consider striking. Workers in a virtual press conference on February 21 cited deplorable working conditions, including having to work shoulder to shoulder during the early days of the pandemic with cloth masks, as well as low pay that hinders their ability to make ends meet.
“I can barely afford my bills because, like I said, I’m recently widowed … I have a major income cut. There are days where I thank God for food stamps because otherwise, my family wouldn’t be afloat,” said Minneapolis school lunch worker Tiffany Bracey at the Monday press conference. She added that she underwent several major medical procedures while working with the school and that she, her late husband, and two of her five children had COVID.
“I enjoy doing what I do, and the chance to work with the children. That’s what keeps me there,” said Cynthia Gross, a Minneapolis school lunch worker, during a Monday press conference. “We’re not asking to be rich.”
Updated 2/22/2022 to correct the pay raise amount that St. Paul educators are requesting.
Henry Pan is a contributing writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.