Teachers arrived by the dozens, parking in rows and brandishing signs outside Osseo Area Schools headquarters, and right on cue at 4:30 p.m., they began to honk their horns.
They were there Thursday to draw attention to concerns about staff and student safety in a pandemic — fears many now are facing as the district plans to begin the year with a hybrid of virtual and in-person instruction. A sign blanketing a windshield offered a popular view: "Stay Online Until COVID Declines."
Plans for the fall are taking shape across the metro area, and teachers in Osseo and elsewhere are aiming to make sure their voices are heard.
To the north in the Anoka-Hennepin district, a new survey conducted by its teachers union shows more than half of respondents favoring distance learning. But hybrid instruction is the plan there, too. Eighty percent view online learning as the safest option, said Val Holthus, president of Anoka Hennepin Education Minnesota.
"We're there and we're listening, but I'm not sure they're hearing us," Holthus said of the district's planning process.
A Facebook page not run by the union, but populated by 1,200 district educators, posed a question about school reopening concerns and generated 149 comments overnight last week, a group member said.
The list highlighted challenges from a practical standpoint. Desks going uncleaned between classes. Crowded hallways during passing time. Increased workloads owing to students being tended to both at home and in the classroom. Teachers feeling powerless to enforce masking and social-distancing requirements.
On Friday, as union leaders mapped out plans for a possible rally, Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law called to invite teachers to be part of a committee that would meet with buildings and grounds officials to discuss air-quality concerns, Holthus said.
Also, Jim Skelly, a district spokesman, said Monday that the school board will consider a "face covering" policy next week calling for students who refuse to wear one to be offered a temporary covering and then distance learning if it becomes an ongoing concern. School administrators will take the lead on the issue, he said.
Recent experience in Minnetonka suggests district-teacher collaboration pays off.
On Aug. 6, when Minnetonka Superintendent Dennis Peterson made his recommendation to provide varying degrees of in-school instruction to kindergartners through eighth-graders, he offered a 15-minute introduction that has been criticized by some as minimizing the risks of COVID-19.
"There are probably more risks to our students and their families from the flu than there are from the virus," he said at the time.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, tweeted a link to a Minnesota Reformer story about Peterson's comments and suggested that an ethics complaint be filed against him.
Closer to home, Ann Hersman, president of the Minnetonka Education Association, wrote to Peterson and Board Chairwoman Katie Becker accusing him of "callous disregard" for the health of the school community.
"The comments make us seriously question the district's commitment to health and safety inside its buildings," Hersman wrote.
By Friday, however, Hersman wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that she had been engaged in "constructive, respectful meetings" with the district. Then, the district itself sent families a statement from Hersman saying there had been "open, honest dialogue" and that the district had been responsive to union concerns.
JacQueline Getty, a district spokeswoman, said she did not expect "big changes" to be made to the plan.
At the Osseo protest, apprehension over that district's plans and uncertainty over what it could mean to people personally were common themes. Emily Sevenz, a Maple Grove Middle School teacher, said: "What do we have to do if we quarantine? We haven't gotten any solid answers."
Lindsey Burdick, a teacher at Park Center Senior High, said that she was concerned for students of color in light of the pandemic's disproportionate impact on those communities.
Barbara Olson, a district spokeswoman, said the hybrid plan remains in place for now and that the district is aware of the care and concern that staff members have for students, families and one another.
The district has done everything it could, she said, to promote safety and is prepared to shift among the models — as dictated by the virus and public health data.
"We hope our stakeholders will recognize that change is the new normal during this pandemic," she said.