With teachers strike, Minneapolis families navigate another twist in uncertain school year

Fiona Carlson’s high school career in Minneapolis has been defined by interruption.

The COVID-19 pandemic, canceled events, whiplash between distance learning and a return to the classroom. And now a teachers strike.

“It’s been weird,” said Carlson, a junior at Southwest High. “There’s definitely been a sense of uncertainty around school.”

It’s unclear when the strike will end and reopen schools for the district’s 28,700 students. In the meantime, many student and parents trying to make plans each day say the instability has left them feeling weary — even if they support the teachers’ efforts.

The walkout started Tuesday after months of tense contract negotiations. The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers is seeking higher wages, class-size caps and more mental health supports for students, among other things. But school leaders have said the union’s proposal is $166 million over the district’s budget.

“There’s such a disparity between the proposals that it’s like, ‘Oh my word. How will they even come to an agreement?'” said Michelle Sutton, whose four children are Minneapolis students. “It’s challenging to navigate.”

Negotiations are continuing through the weekend.

Meanwhile, the union representing the district’s food service workers has also filed an intent to strike, which could pause school meal pickups across the city.

And it’s not yet known if or when students might have to make up the class time they’ve missed during the strike. The district posted an update online Friday saying the elementary calendars had about five days of cushion, but some older students might need to make up days — during spring break or on previously scheduled days off or in the summer — for the district to meet the instructional hours required by the state.

“It’s just like, you can never catch a break. Sometimes that’s how you feel as a parent,” said Carissa Tomlinson, a library director at the University of Minnesota. “I support that this is happening but it’s also exhausting.”

The school district has offered limited emergency child care for younger student, but otherwise families are left to find their own solutions while kids are not in school.

In some school communities, families are banding together to spread the word about churches offering day care or to list hours and link to sign-up sheets for community programs.

Tomlinson’s husband took Tuesday off to watch their daughter, who attends pre-kindergarten at Bancroft Elementary. On Wednesday, her daughter spent the day with a friend, and on Friday the Tomlinsons hosted that same friend for a play date.

“Basically, we’re just trying to find places for her to go so we can do our jobs,” Tomlinson said.

Tough timing

Sutton, who works for a travel agency, and her husband alternate who stays home to watch their four children — two elementary schoolers and two in middle school.

She and her husband have used the strike as an opportunity to teach their children about compromise. Still, the strike dealt yet another blow to the family’s fragile sense of stability in the weeks following the return to in-person classes after a two-week virtual learning period in mid-January.

“While I absolutely think our teachers are worthy of every penny and way more that they’re making, I was incredibly disappointed with the timing,” she said.

Sutton said the back-and-forth nature of pandemic-era schooling has been tough on her kids.

“I feel like my children are continually being collateral damage,” she said.

Daisy Fontaine works two hourly jobs: cleaning houses during the day and waiting tables at night. Her son’s father also works in hospitality and his schedule varies from week to week, so the family has juggled child care plans for some time.

The strike has been no different.

On Wednesday, Fontaine took her son, a second grader at Bancroft, to visit his teachers on the picket line. On Thursday and Friday, she and the boy’s father took turns watching him between shifts at work.

“This is my norm, trying to piece together my days,” she said.

Fontaine believes Minneapolis teachers — particularly education support professionals — are underpaid. She said a salary bump would improve the quality of life for her son’s teachers both present and future and, in turn, trickle down to better his education.

But she sympathizes with the families of high schoolers who have missed key life milestones over the last two years. Fontaine’s son has the benefit of time — he won’t be graduating until 2032.

“My child will be OK. If he doesn’t learn something this year, he’ll learn it next year,” Fontaine said.

‘All the change’

Edison High School sophomore Makya Butler said she was disappointed when she heard the teachers were going on strike. After two years of instability, she had hoped the rest of the school year would unfold without any major surprises.

“It’s a little tiring because of all the change,” she said. “But I can still say that even though [the teachers] are on strike, I still participate and do things, school-wise. It really isn’t affecting me too much.”

Butler picked up extra shifts working at the Jerry Gamble Boys & Girls Club in north Minneapolis to keep herself busy. She spent some of her downtime playing basketball and billiards with friends Friday.

Carlson, the Southwest High student, delivered cookies to some of her teachers on Thursday. She visited the picket lines every day of the strike save for Friday, when she had a swim meet.

Although she supports her teachers, Carlson, like some of her peers, hopes the strike ends soon and that it’s the last surprise the year has in store for her.

“It’s super unstable,” she said. “We never know what’s going to happen.”

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