A statewide survey of more than 20,000 Minnesota educators found nearly half preferring to stay with distance learning this fall, but almost the same number backing a physical return with appropriate safety measures.

Still, support for a full five-day-a-week reopening proved a tough sell for respondents, according to Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, which released the survey results Thursday.

The release came a week before Gov. Tim Walz is expected to weigh in with state guidance Thursday on schooling in the fall. Signs point to flexibility being offered to local districts.

“[Learning] won’t look the same everywhere,” Walz said.

Districts had been directed by the state to prepare for three scenarios — distance learning, in-person instruction and a hybrid model — as the pandemic that upended school routines this spring persists.

Across from Education Minnesota headquarters Thursday, Trudy Nodgaard, a high school family and consumer science teacher in White Bear Lake, prepared to take part in a motor caravan after a news conference about the survey. She held up a sign saying, “Let Science Decide,” and was asked which way she thought science was pointing.

“I think it means we should continue with distance learning because there are so many unknowns,” she said.

Forty-six percent of survey respondents supported a physical return to classrooms, but less than 1 in 5 said it should be full time.

That puts educators somewhat at odds with parents who responded to an informal online survey conducted from June 15-July 6 by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

The MDE survey reported that 64% of parents were comfortable with sending their children back to school this fall — and that more than 94% said the return should be full time.

The Education Minnesota survey was open from July 16-20 and drew responses from about one-quarter of union members.

Both surveys revealed concerns among people of color to a full reopening of schools.

Sizi Goyah, a math teacher in Brooklyn Center, said at Thursday’s news conference that nearly 60% of educators of color who replied to the union survey said they preferred distance learning.

He noted Black, brown and Indigenous people have proved to be at greater risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

“As a math teacher, numbers matter to me,” Goyah said.

Tiffany Dittrich, who has taught language arts for 23 years in White Bear Lake and now is a union leader there, pointed to 30 empty chairs spread across an empty field as an illustration of what teaching in a pandemic could look like.

“It’s easy to see that not even half of these chairs, not to mention the desks they would be attached to, would fit in our average classroom spaces” under Department of Health guidelines, Dittrich said.

Missing from the testimony was an official stance from the state union on which of the three back-to-school scenarios it thinks is best.

But two union locals — Minneapolis and St. Paul — said in a news release Thursday they’ve concluded the state does not have enough time and resources to meet the public health and school safety conditions they believe are essential to reopening schools.

So, they are calling for distance learning to be in place at the start of the coming school year.

“We are working with our district and discussing scenarios, and our members haven’t seen a plan that makes sense yet,” Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, was quoted in the release as saying.

Members and supporters of the union locals plan to march and drive to the governor’s residence on Friday to promote their school safety agenda.

Staff writer Torey Van Oot contributed to this report.

Correction: Previous versions of this article misspelled the last name of Sizi Goyah, a math teacher in Brooklyn Center,.