Teachers unions in Minneapolis and St. Paul are pushing back on their districts' February reopening plans, asking them to delay the return to classrooms over safety concerns during the pandemic.

Gov. Tim Walz announced in mid-December that elementary schools could reopen as soon as Jan. 18, with precautions, and many districts are set to bring young students back next week. But Minneapolis and St. Paul, which have both been in distance learning since the COVID-19 pandemic hit last spring, are aiming for February starts.

Minneapolis announced its plan last week, and union leaders in that district say they've been excluded from key decisionmaking discussions. They are seeking an agreement to establish class-size caps, weekly COVID-19 testing for staff and social distancing protocols before the district's youngest students return to in-person classes.

Under the district plan, which was presented to the school board Tuesday night, preschoolers and kindergartners could return to school buildings on Feb. 8 and first- and second-graders on Feb. 10, followed by students in grades three through five on Feb. 22. The board will vote on the recommended plan next Tuesday.

Minneapolis families must complete an online registration form by Jan. 22 for each of those students, indicating whether they want their child to start in-person learning or continue with distance learning. If parents don't complete the form, their student will be enrolled in in-person learning.

"We've been crystal clear since the pandemic hit that [Minneapolis Public Schools] is not safely ready to return to in-person learning," said Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis teachers union. "Now is the time for MPS to go above and beyond the most basic safety measures required by the state." Superintendent Ed Graff on Tuesday echoed what he wrote to staff last week announcing the plan, saying, "We did not come to this decision lightly and it is not set in stone."

Graff said Tuesday that the district has been working with the union and is committed to collaborating with union leaders. He noted the district has so far erred on the side of health and safety as it balances that with the "educational experience" for students. Families should be able to make their own decisions about what is best for their child, he said.

"Is [returning to schools] 100% safe? No it's not," Graff said. "But I can tell you with 100% certainty that many of our students are worse off without the option to be back in the classroom with teachers."

The St. Paul schools reopening plan is also receiving criticism from teachers. The St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE) held a "car rally" Tuesday afternoon at district headquarters, calling to delay the plan to start bringing elementary schools back full time on Feb. 1. Families will also have a virtual-only option. SPFE said in-person classes should not resume until all educators and staff members have the opportunity to be vaccinated — a step the district's chief operations officer said was unlikely until later next month.

"We cannot wait. … Students cannot wait," the district said in a written statement Tuesday.

Throughout the school year, St. Paul union and district leaders have negotiated conditions governing various stages of learning, from virtual instruction to a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. The two sides are set to resume talks this week with SPFE and its supporters demanding stronger measures related to social distancing, school air quality, and specifics about what would trigger a shift back to distance learning.

"There are many unanswered questions," Nick Faber, the union's president, said.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said being in-person was the best environment for students, and just as neighboring districts showed it could be done safely, he believed St. Paul could meet the challenge.

Bernie Burnham, vice president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, said the safest way to resume in-person teaching is to slow the spread of COVID-19 through vaccinations and testing for educators.

Starting on Feb. 8, Minneapolis schools will offer saliva tests every other week to educators working in-person and the district is advocating for expedited vaccinations for staff, Graff said. Teachers unions in Robbinsdale, Osseo and St. Francis are expressing similar concerns as those in Minneapolis and St. Paul, according to Education Minnesota.

On Monday, the Minneapolis union hosted an online discussion during which teachers, school nurses and social workers shared anxieties about returning to in-person learning.

"What is compounding what we're experiencing as a result of this pandemic is the additional lack of respect and trust from the leadership of our district," said Marcia Wyatt, a teacher at Elizabeth Hall International Elementary. "There is not an educator who does not want to be back with our students … but there are some needs that are nonnegotiable."