Minnesota schools’ long tradition of canceling two days of classes for an annual teachers conference will continue this week — even though the conference has been permanently shortened to a one-day event.
Until last year, the Minnesota Educator Academy, or MEA, was held on a Thursday and Friday in mid-October. That changed, when Education Minnesota, the teachers union that puts on the conference, scaled the event back to a Thursday-only gathering, and limited it to union members and student affiliates. Union leaders said at the time that the shift was in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision that exempted nonunion public employees from having to pay for collective bargaining.
Now, Education Minnesota has decided to keep both of those changes for the foreseeable future. The union already has scheduled conference dates for the next decade, all of them on the third Thursday in October. But most school districts, including many that already have plotted out their academic calendars for the next two to three years, are sticking to the two-day break.
Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said he’s seen some interest from school districts in changing the four-day-weekend tradition, but not much action to make it happen. School officials, he said, are in a bit of a bind, torn between trying to find more academic days on the calendar early in the school year, respecting some families’ longstanding traditions of vacationing during the long break, and deciding if it makes sense to cancel one day of school and bring students back just before the weekend.
“I think the Thursday-only schedule makes it even a little more challenging for districts to turn around and say: ‘Well, we’ll [close] on Thursday and then we’re going to have classes on Friday,” he said.
Most of the state’s largest districts, including Anoka-Hennepin, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Osseo, committed to a two-day MEA break this and next year.
So have others around the state, from Duluth to Mankato. But the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, the state’s fourth-largest, has opted to change plans next year. The calendar approved for the 2020-21 school year includes regular school days on both the planned MEA conference date and the Friday that follows it.
District spokesman Tony Taschner said the district’s calendar committee recommended the shift because of “uncertainty” about the future of the teachers conference — and because it allowed the district to add a day to the holiday break and cut a day off the end of the school year.
He said the decision, which could be revisited before the next school year, was made by a committee that includes representatives from the teachers union.
“The rationale is that two days of school in October are more valuable days for student learning than the day before winter break (Dec. 23) and a day at the end of the school year,” he said.
Minneapolis Public Schools spokesman Dirk Tedmon said officials “remain open to consideration for change,” but have already scheduled three years’ worth of calendars that include the longer break.
District students get three days off in a row, with Wednesday set aside for parent-teacher conferences, as has been done in the past.
“[District leaders] chose to leave it for a couple of reasons — the largest being they felt it would be highly unproductive to have students come back on a Friday for classes after having been off on Thursday,” he said.
Bernie Burnham, Education Minnesota’s vice president, said the conference remains a critical time for teachers around the state to connect with each other, share their experiences and get additional training — and for teachers, students and families to get a break from the usual weekly grind.
She said moving the conference to a different day or changing the schedule has “not been the conversation” among the union’s leaders.
“It’s a local decision,” Burnham said of school districts’ choices to hold or cancel classes. “For us, it’s been this way for as long as we’ve had the MEA, and we’re going to keep it that way.”
Union leaders expect about 2,000 of their members to attend this year’s conference, which will be held Thursday at downtown St. Paul’s RiverCentre.
That’s about the same attendance as last year, but down from about 3,000 participants in 2017, when the conference was still spread over two days.
This year’s event will feature sessions on topics ranging from science instruction to working with students with autism to retirement planning.
The keynote speaker is Eddie Moore Jr., a national speaker and trainer who focuses on issues of diversity, racial justice and privilege.