Owatonna prepares for distance learning

Owatonna Public Schools staff preparing to distribute technology back in March 2020, in case a prolonged closure was ordered by Gov. Tim Walz. (Photo courtesy of the Owatonna Public Schools)

Owatonna School District will not announce which of the three models the district will be opening the school year with just yet. Instead it will wait until mid-August to make the announcement using the most recent local health data to make the determination.

“If we were to release today, we would be basing it off data that was released on July 18th,” Owatonna School District Superintendent Jeff Elstad said shortly after Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced the state’s plans to return safely to school this fall, giving 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.

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.

Next Tuesday, Aug. 4, the Owatonna district will deliver to parents the three models that the district is preparing for. It will be providing as much information about all three models as it can.

“So (parents) will understand in those different models how we will be conducting learning,” Elstad said.

If the number of COVID-19 cases changes, the school may choose to switch to a different model throughout the year. The district will have to remain flexible based upon the levels of COVID-19 spread.

The Owatonna School District is trying to plan a 24 hour buffer for situations in which it would need to switch from one model to another. For example, if the district learns from the public health officials that the county is reaching a point where the school district may need to switch their model, the district will not have school the following day after this discovery. The buildings would be closed for the day while the school district makes the transition.

“That gives our educators a 24 hour period to turn around and be able then to switch into that different model,” Elstad said.

The district received word from the Department of Education that these three models were the models the district needed to start preparing for back in June. The district team of administrators and staff have put in countless hours into the plans, while weighing factors such as rigor of education for students, relationships and safety according to Elstad.

Walz also mentioned in his announcement plan to invest $430 million in federal funding to support schools, teachers, students and their families as the pandemic continues. Locally, Sesker said that extra revenue would help offset the costs of extra transportation if the district implements a hybrid model, additional bus routes and more professional development for teachers.

Walz’s plan to relies on Public Health and determine the safety of going back to school based on cases per 10,000 in the county. He hopes the guideline gives individuals incentive to wear a mask to reduce the number of positive tests.

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 guidance comes as coronavirus cases have been moving upward in some parts of the state. Minnesota reported 745 new cases on Thursday — slightly higher than the seven-day average — and five new deaths. State officials have warned of rising hospitalizations, but that number dipped slightly in Thursday’s data.

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.

{div class=”asset-tagline text-muted”}Reporter Ashley Rezachek contributed to this story. Reach her at 507-444-2376. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.{/div}

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