It’s a new year, but hallways at Faribault Public Schools lack the usual clamor of students returning to classes after winter break.
Faribault Public Schools pivoted to full-time distance learning Nov. 19 with the goal of returning to either a hybrid model or in person classes by Jan. 4. However, based on Rice County COVID-19 cases per 10,000, the district’s Incident Command Center team decided to continue distance learning until Tuesday, Jan. 19. Monday marked students’ first day “back to school” online after their winter break.
If county numbers and the ICC indicate it’s safe to do so, Superintendent Todd Sesker said students in pre-kindergarten through second grade will pivot to in-person learning Jan. 19 while middle school and high school students transition back to hybrid learning, the format they used in fall 2020.
“I’m really looking forward to Jan. 19 and getting the elementary kids, at least preK through two, all back in person,” Sesker said. “We can then implement the improvements that we’ve made for our hybrid learning model. And then, eventually, if we can get the immunizations out there in our community and in our schools, we can get all of our kids back in school. I’m really looking forward to that and to return to some normalcy.”
Based on the Minnesota Departments of Education and Health recommendations, the county’s 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents needs to fall between 10 and less than 20 in order for elementary students to attend school in person and middle school and high school students to resume hybrid learning. According to the most recent report, Rice County’s 14 day case rate per 10,000 residents, from Dec. 13 to 26, 2020, was 76.5. Until the county’s case rate per 10,000 residents dips below 50, MDE and MDH recommend keeping all students in distance learning.
Sesker urged community members to “not give up now” in terms of following health and safety protocols, considering how the COVID-19 count impacts the schools’ learning models.
“It’s still very important that people wear their mask and social distance as much as possible,” Sesker said. “Once we start students in school on the 19th, we want to keep them there. If the numbers jump in the county, we might have no choice but to keep it the way it is.”
The week before winter break began, parents of Faribault Public Schools students received a survey to complete either before or during the break. The survey gave parents an opportunity to give the district feedback on its implementation of distance learning. Sesker said the administration will present the results of the survey during a School Board meeting, most likely Jan. 25.
From his own perspective, Sesker said health and safety protocols “went as well as they could have in this environment we’re in right now.”
In a sense, the 2020-21 academic year was a positive turning point for Faribault High School with the implementation of a seven-period school day. Sesker said FHS was able to offer additional elective courses, but staff believes the transition will improve once students return to school in person full time. The silver lining to distance learning, Sesker noted, is that the district has also expanded its online program offerings to students who choose that route.
Planning ahead to prom, graduation and other major events that students anticipate throughout the year, Sesker said, “… We still have a ways to go to resolve all the COVID issues. But we’re being very optimistic and hoping the immunizations will help those kids get back into school so we can start doing the things that are important to parents and students that we haven’t been able to do so far.”
Amid the pandemic, the district has not lost sight of a couple major projects that will impact students beyond COVID-19. One of them is the Roosevelt Elementary School addition, which will house McKinley Early Learning Center services once completed. Bids for the project have come in, and Sesker said construction will likely begin this spring and wrap up by January 2022.
Another project the School Board has discussed in depth is the addition of a magnet school in the district. A magnet school, which could emphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum or another topic, is one possible way to attract families and prevent them from open enrolling outside the district.
The district had planned to open the magnet school later this fall, but Sesker said the pandemic pushed plans to fall 2022. The administration wants to make sure staff is on board with the transition, and that parents and students are involved in the decision making, he said.
“We continue to investigate that and look at student-centered learning, which is the driver of whatever new and innovative ideas we have for our school district,” Sesker said. “I would say we have started those conversations with our staff, and now we’re going to start formulating a plan, and once that plan is complete we’ll start going to the School Board.”
Looking back on the first half of the school year, Bethlehem Academy President and Principal Melinda Reeder said health and safety protocols went well overall.
“Having time this summer to plan and work with the COVID team and look at some of the things we did in the spring really helped,” Reeder said. “We did a parent survey, which reflected they saw great improvement.”
BA implemented all three potential models — in person, hybrid, and full distance learning — at different points throughout its first semester. As a whole, Reeder said parents indicated in the survey that they prefer in person learning to the models, and most students perform better socially and academically in this model. Staff will evaluate feedback from a student survey when tweaking the different learning options.
BA began its second semester Monday, resuming its hybrid model. Similar to Faribault Public Schools, BA students learn from home on Wednesdays unless they need to access individual support or work on projects in the school building.
Reeder said the administration asked families that traveled over winter break to quarantine voluntarily upon their return, so some students will continue learning from home until they can safely return to class.
Staff has returned to the building, she said, and will continue to take precautions to prevent COVID-19 spread, and work with the county and state to implement new offerings like saliva testing. BA continues to meet with County Public Health officials every week to evaluate case numbers, she said.
In terms of school wide events, BA is in the process of planning Catholic Schools Week along with Divine Mercy Catholic School. The celebration kicks off Jan. 30 and spans the first week of February. Catholic Schools Week usually involves open house visits, giving parents a chance to see their children’s classrooms and inter-grade activities. To hold this type of celebration safely, Reeder said the schools will need to alter many of those events.
BA also holds a SnoBall each February, but Reeder said she isn’t yet sure if a dance is in the cards. She has doubts, but with the state allowing winter sports to resume this week, she believes there might be a chance.
The Bethlehem Academy Boosters and Supporters Night, a fundraiser that gathers alumni in the school auditorium each spring, will tentatively take place in person with online streaming options and limited guests, Reeder said.
As for spring events like prom and graduation, Reeder said it’s too early to know the outcome.
“In the COVID planning stages, we really look at a month at a time because so much can change in really just a week,” she said.