As Minneapolis Public Schools draws criticism from teachers who say they've had no say in a return to classroom life, St. Paul and its educators are working on the latest in a series of agreements guiding its multistage reopening.

The process has not been smooth, but St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said it is important for the district and its unions to build a culture in which they work together for students.

"You've seen what the reaction is when we do something unilaterally," he told school board members last month.

His comments came less than a month after Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators (SPFE), accused Gothard of taking a "cheap shot" at the union by saying in a written statement that SPFE leaders were delaying the district's ability to move from distance learning to a hybrid of in-person and online instruction.

Faber said union members are willing to return when it is safe to do so.

Since then, the state's second-largest district has implemented the first stage of a reopening by welcoming special-education students back to school in a hybrid format. But rising COVID-19 case counts in Ramsey County and elsewhere have led districts to slow or reverse calls to get students back into classrooms.

The second stage of St. Paul's hybrid plan would find preschoolers to second-graders returning to school on a part-time basis. But on Friday, Gothard announced such a move would not happen until at least Jan. 19 because of the increasing virus positivity rates. The hybrid program for special-education students will remain in place, he said.

In recent weeks, the district and union have sought to craft a new memorandum of understanding that would spell out working conditions under the hybrid model. Scheduling, teacher workloads and health and safety protocols are among the key provisions being discussed, said Kenyatta McCarty, the district's human resources director.

The Minneapolis teachers union, by contrast, has been "left in the dark" by the district when it comes to planning additional phases of hybrid learning, President Greta Callahan said.

Two months ago on the first day of school, St. Paul and its educators reached agreement on a distance learning plan for 2020-21 that disappointed some parents because it did not make daily synchronous, or live, instruction a requirement. Instead, the synchronous elements being guaranteed included daily social-emotional check-ins and "regular" opportunities for students to engage in small- or whole-group instruction.

Megan Olivia Hall, a science teacher at Open World Learning Community on the West Side, said the switch to distance learning has increased her workload. She said it takes two to four times longer to prepare for a live online lesson than one delivered face to face. Virtual meetings among staff members also consume more of her time, she said.

In its proposal to the district, SPFE said it wants the school day to be shortened by an hour under a hybrid model so teachers can use that hour, plus the entire day on Friday, to prepare in-person and virtual course materials. Teachers also should not be required to teach in-person and via a video link to distance-learning students at the same time, the union says.

Gothard, asked by a board member last month if the hybrid move was being put off for budget reasons, said one-time federal funding helped provide "the muscle we need" to hire more custodians on a limited basis. But with enrollment declining, he said, he was reluctant to add permanent contract positions and complicate a future he says is "cloudy at best."

Staff writer Mara Klecker contributed to this report.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109