By WCCO-TV Staff

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A Minnesota teachers union is cautioning Gov. Tim Walz that loosening COVID-19 restrictions could jeopardize the planned reopening for elementary schools later this month.

Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, said in a statement released Thursday that the union is growing concerned about a post-holiday spike in infections and the spread of a new coronavirus variant in other parts of the world. The union represents about 80,000 members who work in schools and in higher education across Minnesota.

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The union’s statement comes a day after Walz announced a relaxing of restrictions that’ll go into effect next week. These include new guidelines for indoor dining at bars and restaurants, spectators at youth sports games, and the reopening of movie theaters and museums. In November, Walz tightened restrictions after Minnesota experienced a record surge of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and death. Last month, the governor extended the restrictions through the holidays.

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The loosening of restrictions was expected as key metrics in the fight against COVID-19 have improved recent weeks. Meanwhile, frontline healthcare workers and those in long-term care facilities are being inoculated. Still, Walz is encouraging Minnesotans to continue to be vigilant, wear masks and practice social distancing.

Many Minnesota school districts are preparing to reopen their elementary school buildings beginning on Jan. 18. As this date approaches, Education Minnesota is asking the governor to closely monitor infection data and, if need be, dial back restrictions to protect students and staff from the virus.

“Educators and nearly everyone else in Minnesota want our state’s children back in the classroom with their friends, but only when it’s safe,” Specht said. “One of the hard lessons we’ve all learned from this pandemic is that you can’t operate schools when the virus is spreading too fast through the community because too many educators get sick or go into quarantine.”

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Specht said she will ask the governor to prioritize educators who have contact with students in the second round of vaccinations. She says the union is also encouraging Walz to extend COVID-19 leave policies for teachers that expired at the end of 2020.