TCU high school classroom

Tri-City United High School students resume hybrid learning this month, following winter break and a few weeks of distance learning. Pictured in September 2020, students spread out in their classes to make social distancing possible. (Photo courtesy of Alan Fitterer)

January doesn’t mark the start to a new school year for Tri-City United Schools, but 2021 still signifies a turning point for students as they pivot out of distance learning.

Tri-City United Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said the district stayed in the hybrid model longer than he expected for the 2020-21 year. It wasn’t until 10 weeks into the school year that TCU Schools shifted to full-time distance learning, and following winter break, students return to class the second full week of January, either in person or as hybrid learners.

“I think the biggest issue we faced in the beginning of my first six months here is so many unknowns,” said Seifert, who started his tenure with TCU Schools in the midst of the pandemic. “ … I think from an administrative standpoint, whether myself or principals at each of the buildings, it’s been difficult to do long-term planning.”

Even with students returning to school — full-time in person for students in pre-K through sixth grade and hybrid for grades seven through 12 — Seifert recognizes the outcome of the pivot is another unknown. With the vaccine becoming more accessible locally, he is hopeful that students can safely stay in school.

During a year when the district had intended to explore adjustments for the English language arts programming specifically, Seifert said identifying ways to address the instructional needs of students has taken precedence as the piece needing most attention.

The best way the district can gauge student progress for now, said Seifert, is by looking at the results of the FAST (Functional Academic Skills Test) assessment students took in the fall and will again take this winter and spring. Realistically, he predicts the test results will reflect less growth than usual, due to the reduction of direct contact between students and their teachers. But since pre-K-6 students will take the assessments immediately following distance learning this month and again in the spring, after some time back in the classroom, the results will help teachers compare the impact of one format over the other.

To evaluate TCU’s implementation of the hybrid model, the district released a survey for parents in the fall. According to Seifert, in breaking down the four district buildings, 60% to 67% of families felt the online pieces were better or significantly better than spring 2020, when the district had limited time to prepare for distance learning. The biggest frustration for parents, as noted in the survey, is needing to act as a teacher to their children after coming home from work.

Winter sports began Jan. 4, and athletes start participating in games and competitions Jan. 14. As of the first day athletics resumed, Seifert said no spectators are allowed. Basketball and hockey players must wear masks while playing, which is a stricter guideline than what health professionals recommended for fall sports.

Although he once struggled with the idea of starting activities before students return to class, Seifert said he realizes now that giving those opportunities to students, when they’re already separated from friends, could benefit their mental health.

Non-athletic activities have also resumed in whatever format works best. Theater students have been preparing their one act play submission for competitions, and the department hopes to push back the musical to later in the spring. Students in activities, such as knowledge bowl, have participated in practices virtually.

By the middle to the end of February, Seifert said the administration will need to decide how to go about prom, which typically lands in April or early May. Discussions about graduation will start in March.

“We’re trying to make decisions for things four or five months down the road and we don’t know what the guidelines will be at that time,” Seifert said.

Thinking ahead to summer, one goal of the staff is to consider ways to make up for the broken instructional patterns that resulted from school closures. One option he mentioned involves enhanced summer school programming to support students who fell behind while navigating distance and hybrid learning.

Seifert also acknowledged that some students have realized they prefer distance learning over instruction in person, so the district plans to explore potential online options for those students.

“I think everybody’s goal is that now, as we come back, hopefully we don’t have to take a step backwards but can stay in this model,” Seifert said. “Ideally, when September 2021 comes around, we can go back to what is a normal educational setting.”

Reporter Misty Schwab can be reached at 507-333-3135. Follow her on Twitter @APGmisty. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved. 

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