Northfield Public Schools officials say a return to in-person instruction this fall poses a number of logistical challenges.

Last month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Health provided reopening guidance to districts in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic. In doing so, the state suggested districts prepare for either an exclusive distance learning format, a mixed approach of in-person and out-of-school instruction, and solely in-school learning. The state is expected to provide further guidance later this month.

Minnesota schools have been closed since March as a way to combat the spread of COVID-19.

Superintendent Matt Hillmann said during a July 13 School Board meeting that he anticipates at least two of the formats will be necessary, and possibly immediately shift, during the 2020-21 school year. In Minnesota, another possibility is that students and teachers who initially resist returning to school could become more comfortable with doing so later in the fall, depending on the progression of the virus.

“This is not simple,” he said. “This is challenging stuff.”

Hillmann said the No. 1 concern he has is how districts can safely bus children to school. Current health guidelines stipulate only 13 children should occupy school buses meant to hold a maximum of 77 students. Last year, Northfield Public Schools bused 3,000 students per day. Hillmann noted the district is trying to think creatively and troubleshoot to ensure a sufficient number of students have transportation.

Board member Tom Baraniak expressed concern that more traffic around the Highway 246/Jefferson Parkway roundabout construction zone caused by busing capacity limits could pose problems. The project is slated to be completed in early October. The construction on the intersection, however, could be done sooner.

Hillmann added the district is trying to form a text-based health screening system. Also, an exclusive in-person or hybrid option will likely necessitate the use of face coverings for students and staff. The district has worked with Rice County Public Health for face covering options and is evaluating the possibility of offering full-size masks.

Hillmann said other possibilities for face coverings include bandanas or scarves students and staff could pull over their noses or mouths. He added the district has plenty of soap and hand sanitizer and a quality cleaning and sanitizing plan.

Baraniak suggested district officials poll families on how many could provide their own face masks to accurately gauge how many Northfield Public Schools needs to provide.

Northfield students and staff are not unanimously supportive of returning to school this fall. Nearly 17% of 400 staff members and 25% of 1,100 students — 300 — indicated in a recent survey that they wouldn’t be comfortable with in-person instruction this fall because they or someone they live with has an underlying health condition that places them at greater risk. The district is working to allow them to operate in a distance learning environment.

“We plan to do everything possible to provide those staff who cannot come back to work a remote learning option such as working in the distance learning model for students who cannot come back,” Hillmann said.

In a worst-case scenario as a last resort, Hillmann said the district could offer staff who don’t feel comfortable coming back to school a yearlong unpaid leave of absence.

According to a Star Tribune survey involving 130,000 responses between June 15 and July 6, 64% of parents said they would feel comfortable with their children returning to school full time. Eleven percent said they’d feel uncomfortable and 24% said they were unsure. According to the survey, more than 94% said they’d prefer to have students attend school full time if schools reopened.

Board member Rob Hardy said he wants Northfield Public Schools to have options available for those students and staff so they don’t have to decide between protecting their health and meeting education obligations.

Districts prepare for an uncertain fall

Hillmann noted national discussions have started on the learning format schools will undertake this fall. President Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos have placed pressure on districts to open this fall by threatening to cut funding for districts that don’t reopen. Two of the largest districts on the West Coast, San Diego and Los Angeles, have committed to opening in a distance learning format.

To prepare for the possible scenarios, Northfield Public Schools has teams focusing on three components. The groups consist of 12-19 people who meet several times a week and represent teachers, custodians, nurses, the District Youth Council, assistants and others.

An instructional design team is being led by District Assessment Coordinator Hope Langston. Activities Director Joel Olson is heading up the logistics group. One consideration the working team is considering is enacting one-way hallways to prevent COVID-19 exposure.

Director of Special Services Cheryl Hall is leading the health and virus focus group.

Hillmann said although some people believe local districts will have the final say in developing the learning format, there has been no indication that will be the case. He anticipates local decisions will be made once the state makes a final recommendation. Those decisions could be made on a region-by-region basis as different areas of the state experience uneven progressions of the virus.

At Owatonna Public Schools, a working group consisting of staff is addressing internal logistics. Parent and student focus groups are in place within all district buildings.

Superintendent Jeff Elstad said the district is also tacking transportation concerns surrounding any return to in-person instruction. In addition, he noted everyday activities like eating lunch and passing time between classes could need to be staggered to ensure social distancing.

“We can find a way to make that work,” he said. “It will probably require some out-of-the-box thinking.”

Elstad noted although he is aware the best work of students comes in an in-person learning environment, he needs to ensure the safety of students.

“It’s a dilemma,” he said.

In Faribault, Public Schools Superintendent Todd Sesker said the district will be ready for students should they return to in-person instruction. He expects board action to take place in early August. A district task force, consisting of teachers and administrators, is working on plans for all grade levels.

Sesker said he doesn’t have a favored option, and he expects the district’s final decision will be based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Tri-City United Superintendent Lonnie Seifert said the biggest logistical issue the district sees is how to get students to school.

“Once we get done with that, once you start looking at in the building, what are requirements?” he asked. “We’re still waiting to see. Are masks for staff required or recommended? Masks for students required or recommended?

Despite the numerous hurdles, Seifert said educators are problem-solvers and can make the logistics work. In order for them to do so, however, he called on state and federal guidelines, which shifted several times over the last month, to be consistent.

He raised the possibility of having K-3 students initially return to school before adding students in more grade levels, adding he prefers that approach to a staggered week schedule. In suggesting that option, Seifert noted the elementary age group especially relies on in-person instruction.

Continued distance learning format could also pose challenges

Although Hillmann and other officials deemed distance learning last spring as relatively successful based on the short turnaround from in-person instruction and quick action by the district and other partners to provide technological devices to all students, he believes a more robust approach will be needed this fall if that approach continues.

Hillmann doesn’t expect the district to receive much more than the already committed $380,000 in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) funding. Hillmann said for the district to combat the possible looming financial strife caused by the COVID-19 induced economic downturn, the board will need to successfully weigh the long- and short-term impacts of decisions.

Northfield Public Schools plans to meet face-to-face or via a video conference format with every family from Sept. 8-11 to express support and gauge stakeholder feelings on how the pandemic and other societal issues have impacted them since the end of in-person instruction.

Hillmann said part of the reason for doing so is to ease the anxieties of parents and staff. In addition, he noted staff who are unable to meet the mental health needs of students will refer them to needed resources.

Reach Associate Editor Sam Wilmes at 507-645-1115. © Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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