A pandemic and the racial reckoning stemming from the death of George Floyd are fueling apprehension and concern among Twin Cities area teachers of color.

Some who would prefer to be home to minimize the risk of exposure to COVID-19 are reporting to classrooms because they cannot afford to quit or take a leave of absence. Others look warily at school district budget sheets, and their own relatively short tenures, and fear layoffs could be in their future.

Even as Minnesota's students grow more diverse, the state's teachers are still overwhelmingly white. The "last in, first out" policy that values seniority in district layoff decisions can claim the best young talent, with perhaps the most vivid example being Qorsho Hassan. Despite being a finalist for Minnesota's teacher of the year, she was laid off this spring in the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district — and then went on to win the honor.

Now she is in the neighboring Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school system, where on a recent morning she led nine fourth-graders in a reading exercise while sporting both a mask and a cap emblazoned with "Black Lives Matter."

Battling through hardship was the lesson for the day, and after citing various challenges, Hassan asked the kids: "What if it's too hard? What if it's tough? What are you going to do?"

"Push through," they exclaimed.

Boosting the ranks of teachers of color is a cause with strong bipartisan appeal. About 34% of the state's K-12 students are nonwhite, while teachers of color make up only 5% of full- and part-time teachers, according to a 2019 Star Tribune analysis.

But two legislative sessions have passed without significant new investments. At the same time, young teachers are having to cope with springtime layoffs and staff shake-ups that occur as districts balance their budgets.

"It creates a revolving door that undermines efforts to diversify the workforce," said Paul Spies, legislative action team lead for the Coalition to Increase Teachers of Color and American Indian Teachers in Minnesota.

Verna Wong, who teaches at Champlin Park High School, said: "We've lost a lot of great people. People I've cried over. People I've mentored. You don't have a whole lot of protections as a probationary teacher."

Hassan still was in the probationary stage of her career when she was laid off for a second consecutive year in Burnsville. Last year, she was rehired. This year, she chose to switch districts. Burnsville, citing declining enrollment and inadequate state aid, cut loose every probationary elementary teacher. Now, teachers of color fill 29 of the nearly 608 full-time equivalent positions, down from 33 of about 658 a year ago.

"As long as 'last in, first out' language remains in our teachers' contract as it is, achieving our goals will be stunted," school board Chairwoman Abigail Alt said.

Robbinsdale Area Schools and its teachers union negotiated an agreement allowing probationary teachers to be retained out of order if they better reflect the students being served, said Stephanie Burrage, the district's interim superintendent. So far, three teachers of color have escaped layoffs under the agreement.

Hassan, an outspoken critic of "last in, first out" policies, said she considers the Robbinsdale provision to be inadequate. Teachers of color have a favorable impact on students of color — all students, in fact, she added — and ought to be retained without stipulation because "we're needed," she said.

Thinking back on her time in the Burnsville district, she recalled the excitement some kids would have simply by seeing her walking in the hallway with her students.

"To them, they saw a classroom teacher, they saw a teacher who was Somali American, which they probably had not seen before — and that's powerful," she said. Consider, too, she added, the value of teachers of color in helping students navigate racial issues in the wake of Floyd's death at the hand of Minneapolis police.

A recent reading of the book "Say Something" spurred a rich dialogue about racism and about some of the experiences suffered by her students of color, Hassan said.

"It was really helpful for my white students to hear that and not feel like they were personally attacked," she added.

As for the return to classroom life itself, Hassan said she has enjoyed the small class sizes that come with hybrid learning during the pandemic.

The virus has been shown to have a disproportionate impact on people of color — a fact not lost on teachers in the Osseo and Anoka-Hennepin districts.

In August, teachers of color in both school systems wrote public letters that expressed concerns about the potentially unsafe return to classrooms. Last week, kids returned part time to the secondary schools, and fortunately, according to teachers there, hallways had light traffic and mask-wearing and social distancing were observed.

But both districts serve students in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park, where residents of color have been hit hard by the pandemic. In the Anoka-Hennepin district, Wong said many teachers of color fear contracting and spreading the virus to elderly family members who live with them.

At North View Middle School in the Osseo district, math teacher Waleid Hassan said he missed the energy that students bring and was happy to return to school last week. He has a bigger workload. In addition to seventh-grade math, he now is teaching eighth grade, too, after some North View teachers shifted to distance-learning only, he said.

Teachers are cleaning the tops of the students' desks between classes. Kids are wearing their masks and using hand sanitizer. Last week he spent time with them reviewing expectations and tending to technology needs.

And now, Hassan said, it is time to get to work: "I haven't seen my students in about six months," he said. "It's going to be rigorous for them."

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109