The youngest St. Paul students returned to classrooms Monday, as the district joined dozens of others across Minnesota that have reopened elementary schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the excitement of welcoming the kids back to class comes as teachers continue to raise safety concerns. Some are scrambling to apply for accommodations that would allow them to work from home and teach students still in distance learning instead of risking exposure to the virus in school buildings.

School districts, sometimes fielding hundreds of requests, must find a balance between ensuring enough staff for in-person learning and protections for educators who are or have families at higher risk of complications from the virus.

"It's an operational and logistical challenge that every district leader in the metro area is facing," said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts.

For some districts, that has meant denying previously granted accommodations as more teachers are needed for in-person instruction. For others, it has meant hiring full-time substitute teachers to be on call if staffing levels dip as teachers take leaves.

Students in preschool through second grade returned to St. Paul classes Monday. By the time the district opens buildings to older elementary grades in two weeks, there will be about 11,000 students learning in person; another 7,000 students have opted to remain in distance learning, said district spokesman Kevin Burns.

Principals across the district reported eager students Monday, including some children who wanted to wear their "back to school" outfits to bed the night before, Burns said.

"The excitement, anticipation and wonder is alive and well in our hallways and classrooms," he said.

But as the students ran into Maxfield Elementary with their backpacks and face masks on, they passed St. Paul middle and high school teachers who stood outside to show support for colleagues returning to in-person work. Many held signs that read "I stand with St. Paul educators."

The St. Paul teachers union has called for the delay of in-person classes until all teachers and staff have the opportunity to be vaccinated.

In Minneapolis, where the youngest elementary students start returning Feb. 8, social worker Daniel Perez was waiting to hear if he'll be granted unpaid personal leave from Green Central Elementary. His parents live with him and are at high risk for severe COVID-19.

"It's been a mess," he said, worried about bringing the virus home from school. "And I wonder if I'm doing the right thing — am I being selfish?"

The federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act required certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to COVID-19. That act expired at the end of 2020, meaning it's now up to employers to decide whether they'll extend those leaves.

Teachers who are at high risk for severe COVID-19 infection can apply for accommodations to work remotely under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) or apply for family leave. And language in Gov. Tim Walz's executive order from July specified that districts and charter schools must "provide accommodations to staff as required by applicable laws and must allow school staff whose health is at risk or who have members of their household whose health is at risk to work from home to the extent possible."

Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, says some school districts have not accepted such accommodation requests. According to President Denise Specht, several districts are saying they have no remote teaching assignments at all and others are requiring teachers to come into the school building to teach remote classes.

"When employers fail to consider remote work or other accommodation requests individually or fairly, they risk much more than legal action," Specht wrote in a statement, adding that the decision jeopardizes teachers' health and may lead educators to quit.

Under state law, an employer does not have to provide a reasonable accommodation if it imposes an undue hardship on the employer's operations. Anyone who feels they've been unfairly denied a reasonable accommodation can contact the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

'A tough decision'

Education Minnesota has filed seven formal charges with the Department of Human Rights on the basis of disability. All are pending, said the union's spokesman Chris Williams. Several other cases brought to the state union were resolved through discussions with the districts, he said.

The Minneapolis teachers union, which had repeatedly raised issues over the lack of clarity around accommodations, got answers for some of its members in a court order. The temporary restraining order, issued Saturday, allows school staff to work remotely if they had previous work-from-home accommodations or are currently applying for them.

After the court ruling, the district sent staff an e-mail with details about applying for accommodations.

In a statement, district spokesman Dirk Tedmon said returning to in-person learning is "a complex, multifaceted effort and we will continue with our plans until and unless directed to do otherwise."

According to the district, 2,975 Minneapolis staff members have been asked to teach in-person and in school buildings, starting in February. Of those staff, 232 had filed requests for accommodations or leave as of Jan. 26; 172 requests had been granted and the rest were still being processed. About 40% of the districts' elementary students have opted to continue with distance learning.

In the Osseo Area Schools, 102 staff members requested ADA accommodations to work remotely and 53 teachers requested leaves under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Most of the educators who asked to work from home were assigned to teach students who choose full distance learning, said Laurel Anderson, the district's executive director of human resources.

St. Paul schools have fielded 545 requests for accommodations. As of Jan. 25, 164 were approved and 236 were in progress.

Croonquist, of the Metropolitan School Districts group, said accommodation issues may become less urgent as more Minnesota teachers receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Perez said his mix of emotions — fear, anger, frustration and confusion — will ease once he's vaccinated. For now, however, he's waiting to hear about his leave.

"When will I hear back is the million dollar question," he said. "It's a tough decision and everyone wants better answers."

Staff writer Peter Warren contributed to this report.