The plan to return some of Rochester’s students to the classroom is not good enough in the eyes of many.

A growing segment of parents is upset with the school district’s handling of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. That discontent has been amplified in the time leading up to and since the school board, on Tuesday, approved its latest plan for getting students back in the classroom. Parents have expressed frustration with both the decision itself and their feeling that there seem to be few ways for the public to connect with the district's leadership.

“We chose Rochester to settle down with our family partially due to the fantastic schools here,” Erin Jensen, a mother of three elementary students, said in a letter to the school board. “RPS should be leading the way with getting these kids back into school, not lurking in the shadows of other districts that value the importance and recognize the safety of in-person learning.”

During its recent meeting, the school board decided to return elementary students to the hybrid learning model, combining classroom time with at-home learning. Although there was a suggestion from the district’s COVID-19 advisory team to eventually return elementary students to the classroom full time, the board decided to hold off on that decision. It will revisit the issue on Feb. 2.

RPS Superintendent Michael Muñoz has indicated repeatedly that secondary students won’t return to the classroom until the COVID infection rate decreases. At the beginning of the school year, Gov. Tim Walz issued categories meant to guide school districts in their decision-making processes. According to those categories, secondary students should be in distance learning when the community's 14-day case rate is 30 or higher. According to the district, that case rate was 77 as of Tuesday.

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"There is no consensus. People are scared; they are angry; they are frustrated, and we absolutely understand that. It is an awful situation that our families and that our kids are in."

- Jean Marvin, Rochester School Board chairwoman

Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin said she recognizes that parents and students are hurting over the situation. The length of the meeting showed the weight board members attach to the issue. Members debated the best way to return students to the classroom for three hours, with emotions at times running high.

“There is no consensus. People are scared, they are angry, they are frustrated, and we absolutely understand that,” Marvin said. “It is an awful situation that our families and that our kids are in.”

The Fallout

Leading up to the board's decision on Tuesday, the school district sent an email to parents, explaining what the COVID-19 Advisory Committee was recommending. That was enough to get parents up in arms.

"When I first saw it, I thought there was some sort of a mistake."

- Stephanie Schmidt, RPS parent

"When I first saw it, I thought there was some sort of a mistake," RPS parent Stephanie Schmidt said in an email.

Even though Muñoz has explained at school board meetings, which have recently been running in excess of six hours long, that secondary students won't return to the classroom until the COVID case rate decreases, that has apparently not been fully communicated to parents. Schmidt, who has a ninth grader, said the communication from the district did not mention anything about a plan for secondary students.

One parent, Patricio Gargollo, started an online petition around the new year with the heading “Rochester Public School Proposed ‘Return to School Plan’ is Unacceptable.” The petition has gained nearly 1,000 signatures in just a little more than a week.

“Rochester Public Schools' plan does not serve the educational needs of our children and is completely out of sync with other, sometimes larger, school districts,” the text of the petition reads. “Not to mention the RPS board has ZERO plans for our 6-12 students.”

Muñoz addressed the fact that other school districts in the area appear to be moving faster on the issue than RPS. Due to the district's size, he said, RPS is not able to turn on a dime, whereas some smaller districts may be able to.

Another petition is circulating with the heading ‘Rochester Elementary Students need to be back in the classroom full time starting 1/19/21.” That petition has received nearly 300 signatures.

The Facebook group “RPS -- Prioritize Our Children” has created a common space for parents to communicate and talk about the issues they're facing with the school district.

Adam and Laura Kramer sent an open letter to the Rochester School Board, pressing for more decisive action. In the letter, they described their family as fortunate in the sense that one of them is able to stay home with their children. At the same time, they also pressured the board to act.

“Even though my kids will make it through, that doesn’t mean that this is the right option for them,” the Kramers’ letter to the board said. “They wake up upset most days. Sitting them in front of a screen ALL DAY takes a major toll.”

Transparency concerns

School board meetings, like everything else, have changed during the pandemic. Board members log into a video-conference call, which is streamed live on YouTube.

However, the comments section is closed, so there is no way for parents to interact with board members in real time during those meetings. Nor does the school board allow the public to join the call to express opinions, as they would be able to if they were attending the meeting in person. People can email board members, but those who have done so say they only get one reply even if they emailed multiple members. The fact that the school board has become so closed off during the pandemic has exacerbated parents' response to the board's decision.

"We as parents are fed up with the lack of transparency at the School Board. We find it unacceptable that we can't reach them. We can't be involved or participate in any of these meetings."

- Patricio Gargollo, RPS parent

One of the people concerned about access to elected board members is Gargollo, the parent who started the petition criticizing the district's lack of an adequate plan.

"We as parents are fed up with the lack of transparency at the school board," Gargollo told the Post Bulletin. "We find it unacceptable that we can't reach them. We can't be involved or participate in any of these meetings."

Marvin, the board's chairwoman, said there are legal reasons why the board is unable to allow direct communication during its meetings. The board can’t allow the public unbridled access to speak their mind -- whether in the comments section or live during one of the video conferences -- if what they’re saying were to contain false information or something slanderous, she said. That could open the district up to litigation, she said.

When meetings were held in person at the Edison building, the board could simply turn off cameras and not record or televise the public comments. Online, deleting comments could turn into a First Amendment issue, Marvin said.

To Marla Frahm, a Rochester parent with three children in the district, that sounds like an inadequate excuse. She said there are plenty of online forums that have moderators tasked with monitoring comment sections.

“I have really tried to have a voice,” Frahm said. “It’s just so frustrating not to be able to ask a question or seek clarity.”

Marvin said even though parents might not be able to take part in the board meetings, the board is open to having listening sessions where they take input from the public.

She also emphasized that the school board “speaks with one voice.” In other words, if someone emails a school board member, they will receive a single response from the board chair.

One voice or not, those who have received responses from the board say they often have been dismissive and do not actually speak to specific issues.

“RPS is refusing to do what's right for the children in this town,” RPS parent Krista Batzel wrote via email “And they're ignoring the public's concerns about the destruction distance learning is having on our children's learning and mental health.”