St. Peter Public Schools students are going to be in and out, at least to start, during the 2020-21 school year.
Minnesota state officials on July 30 unveiled a plan to reopen schools this fall that gives districts some flexibility to toggle between in-person and online learning, but reserves the right for the state to step in if the coronavirus gets out of control.
St. Peter School District staff laid out a back-to-school plan, and the School Board confirmed it with a unanimous vote Aug. 4. The plan details three learning scenarios — in-person, distance and hybrid — and given current data, along with recommendations from the state, the district will begin the fall in hybrid mode, meaning students will be in-person some days and learning from a distance on other days.
While in school, students will be required to wear faces masks, or when needed, face shields, and they’ll be expected to keep socially distanced. The same rules will apply to teachers and staff.
Specifically, students at all grade levels will be split into blue and white teams. The blue team will be in school on Mondays and Wednesday, while the white team will be in school Tuesdays and Thursdays. Fridays are distance learning days for all students. Students in pre-k programs will continue as usual, full-time in-person, with smaller class sizes.
Gov. Tim Walz, a former teacher, acknowledged the importance of schools and the value of in-person learning, but said the state’s top priority is safety. Districts will work with the state Health and Education departments to determine whether to use in-person instruction, online learning or a hybrid model, and will have the ability to become more or less restrictive depending on the virus.
The plan requires both public schools and charter schools to allow students and teachers to choose remote learning no matter what model the district chooses.
For Superintendent Bill Gronseth, who just arrived take over the position in St. Peter after finishing up in Duluth this summer, it’s been a preparation time like no other. But he said he got a lot of help from the team that was already in place here.
“A lot of work happens before I even arrived, and as soon as I started, they were ready to jump in and really start refining some of the details of the three scenarios,” he said. “It’s not been what any of us saw coming, of course; we’ve heard that before. But there is also opportunity to refine our craft as teachers, as educators, and I think staff has really taken on that challenge. At the center of everything is they really care about the students and their future and their education, and we want to give these families a really good learning experience.”
The district team has been working on back-to-school plans for months, taking feedback from various stakeholders, including teachers and community groups. Leadership also wanted to take seriously the advice of the governor, the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minnesota Department of Health and the United States Center for Disease Control.
That’s why the hybrid model for all students is currently the best option, according to decision-makers, and it will stay that way unless something drastically changes before the school year starts.
“If we were deciding right now, today, we’d all be in hybrid,” Gronseth said. “St. Peter Public Schools serves students in Nicollet and Le Sueur counties, so we need to consider both counties. Looking at the trend data and the recommendations from the governor’s office, we’ve been in the range of (18 to 22 cases per 10,000 people), and we’re really going to be leaning into caution and consistency. We want to be able to sustain whatever it is we’re offering. We know consistency is important to parents.”
The leadership team wanted to keep the model consistent across grade levels to make it as easy for families as possible.
“The numbers would indicate we’re in hybrid for both (elementary and secondary), and that’s a model we know we can operate for a long period of time,” Gronseth said.
For St. Peter Educators Association President Keith Hanson, a physical education and adaptive physical education teacher, the hybrid model is a good place to start.
“We’ve got to continue to be open-minded, because we know there is no perfect plan. We have to focus on what’s best for kids. The next few weeks will be overwhelming for students, staff, parents beginning to plan,” Hanson said. “I do like the hybrid plan; at least you get to see kids twice a week, rather than the full distance learning.”
As part of the back-to-school plan, it’s clearly noted that as data changes, the learning system will change, too. It’s likely that the hybrid learning system will change as more
While school district leadership feels good about their plans, they know there will be a steep learning curve. The district did get something of a head start, though, as teachers were able to implement hybrid learning with summer school. Gronseth said the team discovered a few things they thought would be most challenging were a bit more manageable, but then some unexpected difficulties also popped up.
“One of the things we thought would be a bigger challenge was the face masks, but it turned out people had already become accustomed to wearing them,” Gronseth said. “What we’ve learned is, as people have been exposed, or in some cases had family members test positive, our procedures in working with the MDH and tracing cases and knowing what to do, was probably our biggest learning curve. But now we feel more prepared to do that on a larger scale.”
Each building will have an identified COVID coordinator, and they’ll be the contact for that building, while Gronseth serves as the district coordinator. Teachers will also be expected to help ensure students are following social distancing and other preventative guidelines. That may be a challenge, but Hanson said it’s about staying attentive.
“I think, talking to a couple summer school teachers that have piloted this hybrid, it’s the little things,” he said. “Making sure students don’t share pencils or making sure they wipe down books after reading.”
In terms of giving students a useful and thorough education, despite the obstacles, Hanson is optimistic but aware of the difficulties.
“I think it’s going to get tough to get through the full curriculum when you’re only seeing kids two out of the five days per week,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to pick out those essential standards and really go with them.”
He added, “And I think we need to be able to hold students more accountable now than we did in the spring; that was a learning period. This is now the method of providing education, so we’re going to have to hold students more accountable for the distance learning. We’re hoping staff and students will find the motivation to make distance learning work.”
Republicans and some school officials had pressed Walz to leave reopening plans up to individual districts, arguing that local administrators know best how to protect students.
The school guidance came as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state, including rising ICU numbers.
State health and education officials last month asked school districts to prepare for three scenarios: in-person learning for all students, distance learning as in the spring, or a hybrid learning scenario with social distancing and capacity limits.
President Donald Trump has pressed schools nationwide to open for in-person learning, and as many teachers have expressed fears of doing so. Education Minnesota, the state teachers’ union, last week released a survey with just one in five teachers supporting in-person learning.
Administrators for Minneapolis Public Schools, one of the largest districts in the state, said Tuesday they plan to start the school year Sept. 8 with distance learning. Their plan would require remote learning as the primary method of instruction, though buildings would remain open for tutoring, technology and mental health support for students and families.
Walz ordered Minnesota public and charter schools to close and switch to distance learning in mid-March as COVID-19 cases began to appear in the state, affecting nearly 900,000 students and their families. As the number of coronavirus cases in Minnesota grew, the governor extended the closure through the school year and prohibited large-scale high school and college graduation ceremonies.
When a group of Gustavus Adolphus College students and a couple professors made a trip to Peru in 2010, they got everything they bargained for, but also a bit more. After successfully setting up and executing an English learner program, the group made a trip to Machu Picchu, where they would be stuck for four days.
A decade later, Debra Pitton, a recently retired Gustavus professor and the leader of that Peru trip, is sharing the story.
Pitton recently released a book, “No One Left Behind,” which details the adventure for the Gustavus cohort. She first delves into the reason behind the trip and the experience setting up an impromptu school for locals to learn English. Then she tells the story of the Machu Picchu trip and being trapped in a village at the base of the mountain after floods washed out the train tracks.
While those four days at the mountain were memorable, it was important to Pitton to tell the whole story of the trip.
“I was worried the experience would overshadow the teaching part, but in the students’ reflections, they all spoke more about the teaching and their connections with the students,” she said. “On the day we finished, the students all came in and there were tears on both sides.”
Pitton, who taught education courses at Gustavus beginning 21 years ago, started working on the Peru trip a couple years ahead of time when she accompanied a friend to the country for a medical mission. While there, she was told about the request from locals in Chimbote, a small Peruvian village, to learn English, and she was encouraged to design a trip to bring her students to teach.
“We did a focus group beforehand, and there was definitely a strong request from the locals that they wanted their kids to learn English, because it would be helpful in getting jobs and getting out of poverty,” Pitton said. “I was excited to see what the students picked up on, and the majority of their reflections focused on that.”
Kevin Matuseski was an education student in his junior year at Gustavus in 2010. He was one of the 21 students that went on the trip. He wanted to get some experiencing volunteering and teaching English as a second language. He has fond memories of the work in Chimbote.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “I think we came in with a big plan at a local mission there, with nothing really set up, besides this idea we had, along with a bunch of education students ready to put together a program. And then it was kind of like starting out with recruiting students, developing our curriculum and teaching it. I think we were pleasantly surprised there was such a high turnout, so much so that the classrooms were packed. I think there was something like 300 students, and there was maybe four classrooms, with some other little rooms, here and there.”
He added, “I think it showed a lot of (the villages’s) kids the value of English, even if it was just a little spark, as far as working in the tourist industry or something like that. It was a lot of fun. It was nice to see the thirst for learning English and the desire a lot of those kids had.”
Pitton said that most of the students’ reflections mirrored those of Matuseski. For most, the teaching experience stood out from the trip, even if what came later makes for a more enticing story.
The second half of Pitton’s book delves into the experience at Machu Picchu. The 21 students, along with Pitton and fellow faculty member Mary Solberg, were trapped at the mountain among about 2,500 total visitors.
“The only way to Machu Picchu, leaving from Cusco, is to take a train to a village at the base of the mountain,” Pitton said. “We went up and had the opportunity to explore, and we came down, and we were ready to leave, but ‘Oh wait, the train tracks are broke.’ And I, as an American, thought, ‘Oh, OK, when are they going to be fixed?’ and they said, ‘Uh, the train tracks are broken; this is going to be months.’”
From then on, it was about a group of young adults, with just a couple of supervisors, navigating their way in a small Spanish-speaking village with a lot of unknowns. In the end, the group was stuck there for four days; “It felt like 40, but it was only four,” Pitton said.
Beyond the fear and anxiousness that comes with the unknown, the group needed to be self-aware, as its situation was better than that of many others.
“There were over 1,200 people that were also in the community; it was spring break for the South American community,” said Pitton.
“And they didn’t have access to resources we were able to get from Gustavus. There were people in the streets, sleeping on the grounds and in tents. There were rising tensions at one point; we felt maybe like, ‘Oh, Americans, you have your money and can get out.’”
Matuseski agreed that, at times, some tension could be clearly felt.
“There was a bit of a reputation, or a rumor, building that the U.S. citizens were trying to bypass the system. And I think that had created this animosity toward anyone from U.S.,” he said. “I remember telling people one night that we were from Canada. It’s hard when you can see some injustices going on, but at the same time, you’re part of a group and you want to stick together. It’s complicated.”
The Gustavus students and faculty did their best to recognize their fortunate standing compared to others in the village. They helped with sandbagging and any other volunteer assistance they could provide.
“We started working with the local community, getting things figured out,” Pitton said. “We didn’t have access to the normal things, but we saw everyone around us and saw no one had anything more than us, and there was kind of an acceptance. We started playing cards, we helped sandbag. And it actually gave us the opportunity to really experience the culture; we went hiking and we explored every restaurant.”
In the end, the group’s access to external resources did pay off and they were among the first to be helicoptered out of the village, taken back to Cusco, where they could figure out how to return home to family.
In researching and remembering for the book, Pitton spoke to a number of her students on the trip. The writing experience helped her reflect on the impact that trip might have had on both her and the students. And she hopes the book can get a few messages across.
“I hope readers see the value of our college students going abroad and immersing themselves in another country. When your there and build relationships with local communities, it’s so different. It helps you really understand the challenges folks face in other places,” Pitton said. “I hope it also show the value of travel, the value of connecting with other cultures and communities. In this time we’re hunkered down and not seeing anyone, I’m worried we’re going to lose some of the value people have seen in traveling abroad. There was a time we were trapped, and yet the outcome we got from that was powerful, and I hope people can take away from that.”
About three years ago, bees ran into a buzz saw at the St. Peter City Council, as the group voted down an ordinance change that would’ve allowed beekeeping in St. Peter. But the buzz is back, as a new City Council has expressed willingness to at least reconsider the request to allow the operation of hives in city limits.
One of the residents who advocated for the bees in 2017, Emily Bruflat, is now on the City Council and was the impetus behind restarting the conversation now. There are only two council members — Councilor Stephen Grams and Mayor Zieman — on the council now that we’re on the council last time the topic was breached; both Grams and Zieman voted against the ordinance change in 2017.
There was enough interest expressed from the council during a discussion at the Aug. 3 work session that City Administrator Todd Prafke recommended putting the topic on a future goal session agenda, so the council could have an expanded discussion. The next goal session is later in August. If there was still interest at that, the council would have to vote at a regular meeting, likely not until September.
When the discussion was brought to the table in 2017, councilors Susan Carlin and John Kvamme were both in favor of the ordinance change. They did their best to refute the concerns of the other council members, but ultimately four out of six present at the vote remained against.
A couple of the council members were concerned about bees stinging neighbors or residents who have allergies. Two others brought a new objection: that honeybees harm the native pollinator population through competition for food.
“European honeybees are not native to this country,” former Councilor and now state Rep. Jeff Brand said in 2017. He read studies that said honeybees compete with native populations for food and introduce diseases into native pollinator populations. He read advice from The Xerces Society, advising policy makers “to consider potential impacts when considering placing of apiaries on public lands.”
Councilor Grams also cited those studies and reiterated that point during the new council’s discussion on honeybees at the Aug. 3 work session.
“We can’t question science if it’s based on fact and scientific knowledge,” Grams said. “I had talked to a scientist, and his first comment was that the honey bee in the North American continent has done more ecological damage than any other item. We can’t pick and choose what we want to believe and what we don’t want to believe.”
In 2017, former Councilor Carlin responded to that concern.
“They didn’t mean Minnesota Square Park,” she said of the articles concerned about bee management. “These articles were written in reference to managing public lands for conservation.” She said with all of the flowers and gardens available for pollination in the city, a few honeybee hives would not hurt the native pollinators.
Current Councilor Bruflat, not knowing it was illegal at the time, had a honeybee hive at her St. Peter property with her husband Nathan Koster, who is trained in beekeeping. After Koster and Bruflat married in summer 2016, they found their new St. Peter residence. They decided to add bees next to their garden, which flourished in summer 2017. The hive’s placement was key. It was surrounded by a garage, hoop house and tree. Because of those obstacles, the worker bees fly up and then out. Koster told the council they could travel up to three miles, pollinating flowers and plants all over St. Peter.
Mayor Zieman’s primary concern, then and now, was the possibility of neighbors, who did not ask to live by hives, being stung by the bees. Honeybees are not typically considered aggressive, but they mayor noted that they are still capable of stinging, and he said it’s happened to him before.
Bruflat said, that from her own experience and knowledge, honeybees shouldn’t pose any threat to community members. She said that her next door neighbor works in the medical field and has a bee allergy, but still wants the bees, because they were so good for her garden back in 2017. Bruflat made a final point that she doesn’t expect there would be many hives in town, as anyone who wanted to start an apiary would still need certification.
New councilors Brad DeVos, Shanon Nowell and Keri Johnson all expressed interest in discussing the topic more — hearing more on the impact of honeybees and seeing how any complaints would be handled in St. Peter if beekeeping was allowed. Councilor Ed Johnson, who also joined the council after the 2017 discussion, said he was willing to talk about it, but he leaned toward sticking with the 2017 council’s decision.