Emails reveal teachers union given inside access to Walz admin during COVID pandemic

Many of the emails depict a close relationship between union president Denise Specht and former education commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Gov. Tim Walz visits an elementary school in Moorhead, Minn., in September 2020. (Office of Gov. Tim Walz/Flickr)

Several emails show that the largest teachers union in Minnesota had privileged access to Gov. Tim Walz’s administration during the early days of the COVID pandemic.

Through a public records request, Alpha News obtained email exchanges revealing the true extent of communication between the Walz administration and members of the Education Minnesota teachers union in 2020.

Many of the emails depict a close relationship between union president Denise Specht and former education commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker, a Walz appointee who resigned in March 2021 to return to teaching. Walz himself is a former teacher, and Education Minnesota is one of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party’s (DFL) top donors.

According to the emails, Specht and Ricker had established a professional relationship sometime in 2020, as the two began holding quarterly meetings “to [check in] and discuss any items [Education Minnesota] would like to have on the agenda.”

Specht and Ricker convened in the earliest days of the COVID pandemic, as evidenced by a brief email exchange from April 2020. Three weeks later, Specht sent Ricker a document describing the reopening priorities of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the national teachers union to which Education Minnesota belongs.

Earlier this year following investigations, it was revealed that the AFT helped rewrite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) reopening guidelines in February 2021 — a move that kept many schools closed to in-person instruction at a time when calls to reopen were growing more vociferous.

Specht had also been invited to a “confidential meeting” about the upcoming 2020-21 school year, and in another conversation she asked Ricker if she would like to participate in calls with other Education Minnesota members. Ricker agreed to participate in at least two calls with union members to discuss “reopening our schools” along with “recovery and redesign.”

Another email indicates Ricker was participating in the union’s “Thursday Local Leader calls once a month.”

One notable email exchange between Specht and Maria Vincent, assistant to Ricker, appears to demonstrate Specht’s insecurity over Ricker’s last-minute cancellation of a meeting.

“All I keep hearing from the governor, the commissioner and the deputy commissioner is how important Education Minnesota is, what a big stakeholder we are and what a big partner we are. I don’t feel that way,” Specht wrote to Vincent. “Canceling a meeting with over 100 teachers at the last minute doesn’t look good.”

The Education Minnesota teachers union championed lockdowns and school closures throughout the pandemic, with Specht praising Gov. Walz’s “four-week pause” on various in-person activities and gatherings in November 2020, and urging Minnesotans to “mask up, keep their distance and avoid crowds.”

Specht even urged Ricker in April 2020 to implement “equitable grading during distance learning” because it represented an “opportunity to make some systemic changes.”

In a similar vein, a local Education Minnesota leader once pitched ideas to Ricker on changing the way teachers graded during the pandemic, many of them based on the recommendations of other “equity-centered” teachers.

Some of the suggestions included making all grades temporary and allowing students to revise and resubmit their work, getting rid of letter grades and replacing them with a kind of “incomplete/proficient/highly proficient” system where “no one should fail,” and allowing students to make their own decisions on how they could “show their understanding” of the material.

Gov. Walz closed schools from March 18 to March 27, 2020 and then kept students in virtual learning for the remainder of the year. He faced criticism this week for falsely claiming “over 80% of our students missed less than 10 days of in-class learning.”

“The Minnesota Department of Education communicated and met with many organizations to coordinate efforts on behalf of students, educators, staff and families. We value the partnerships we have with other State and local agencies, student organizations, parent groups and others,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

Alpha News also reached out to Education Minnesota for comment but did not receive a response.


Evan Stambaugh

Evan Stambaugh is a freelance writer who had previously been a sports blogger. He has a BA in theology and an MA in philosophy.