Nearly a hundred parents and children braved the evening artic chill to hoist signs and deliver a simple message to the Rochester School Board and Superintendent Michael Muñoz: Open our schools now.

Forget hybrid learning. Ditch distance learning. We want in-person learning, they said, so students and teachers can see each other as flesh-and-blood people rather than pixelated images on a computer screen.

"They don't know that it's not working," said Sara Clausen, a Rochester parent, referring to the distance-learning and hybrid arrangements the district has adopted to help contain the spread of COVID-19. "The only way our kids are going to be able to learn is in the classroom."

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Clausen said she suspects that attendance is "very poor" at schools where distance learning is practiced. She feared even more the toll distancing learning is taking on children of low-income families. When schools canceled in-person learning, now going on 10 months, a valuable support system was ripped away from them.

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"I really worry about those children that don't have a support system," she said. "I talked to an elementary school teacher who said he has a student who is caring for the younger siblings, because their parents have to go to work. So they're not (doing) distance learning."

Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Last month, Gov. Tim Walz allowed elementary schools to reopen for in-person instruction. But the Rochester School Board has taken a more gradual approach to restoring the status quo, largely because of the higher levels of community spread in the county compared to other counties, school board members say.

Today, students in pre-K through second grade returned to a hybrid learning model, meaning in-person learning some days and distance learning on other days. Two weeks later, grades 3 through 5 will also go to hybrid learning. Board talks about easing middle and high schools back to in-person learning will take place in February.

Cathy Nathan, board vice chair, said the board's decision to go to hybrid first was based on the recommendation of a COVID advisory committee. By going to in-person learning right away, it would be hard for students and staff to practice social distancing and other infection-mitigation strategies.

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And given the levels of community spread, the heightened risk of COVID spreading in the schools could mean a return to quarantine measures and distance learning, she said.

"When you compare Olmsted County to counties where districts are going back to in-person, our community spread is about 1.3 to 1.7 times higher," Nathan said.

She said most of the state's middle and high schools the size of Rochester are continuing with distance learning, because they are similarly situated in communities with relatively high COVID case counts.

Yet parents say the case count numbers cited by the board may not tell the whole story. Ginger Plumbo, a Rochester parent who attended the protest Wednesday, said it is her understanding that many of the cases are occurring in prisons and long-term care facilities. Those situations have no bearing on schools, she said.

"What this group is saying is: We want to consider more data points," she said. "What data are you using? All we've heard is case counts. And it's a guideline, not a rule. Other school districts are deciding to do something different."

Plumbo said she can see the toll distance learning has taken on her own children — one in elementary school, the other in middle school. They are doing worse academically.

"They're anxious, depressed. They're backsliding in classes," she said. "My extrovert 10-year-old was not built to sit in front of a computer for six hours. You just see that in one kid, and (you wonder) about the cumulative effects that it has on every kid. I think it's time that we start a new conversation about this, where we look at the whole thing."

Other parents said that data and research about COVID today is much more plentiful than when the pandemic started in March. And much of that research shows that in-person learning is safe.

Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

"I want my child to go to school full time," said Cory Pedersen, who has a child in kindergarten and another in third grade. "We think the data and research continues to show that it's safe, not only in elementary school, but for all students to be in school full time. I think we need to start looking at and assessing the risk of keeping them home."

Clausen said parents upset with the current situation had planned to hold a peaceful protest last week. But board Chairwoman Jean Marvin persuaded the parents to call off the protest and hold a Zoom session instead.

Parents, Clausen said, were elated because they thought the board was giving them an opportunity to speak. It turned into a listening session instead, with parents' microphones kept on mute.

"People were just irate with the listening session last Thursday," she said. "It was a slap in the face to all parents."

Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Kids climb a snow mound as Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Kids climb a snow mound as Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Rochester Public School students and families protest distance learning on Tuesday, January 19, 2021, outside of the Edison Administrative Building in Rochester. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)