Back-to-school

One school year has ended, and educators are already busy planning for three potential reopening scenarios handed down by state officials last week. Possibilities include in-person learning, a hybrid model and distance learning for this fall. Pictured here, students arrive for the first day of school at Owatonna High School in 2019. (Press file photo)

Minnesota health and education officials on Thursday asked school administrators to plan for three scenarios on reopening in the fall, and promised a decision by the week of July 27 on which of the three will be implemented upon students’ return.

According to local superintendents, the Minnesota Department of Education also discussed on a conference call with school leaders the possibility for a region-specific response. This could open the door for districts to enact different models given the pandemic’s reach in their communities.

The three scenarios the state is asking schools to prepare for are in-person learning for all students, hybrid learning with social distancing and capacity limits, and distance learning only.

“Decisions around the fall may change as we learn more about which scenario will be in the best interest of public health, and specifically the health and safety of our school communities,” the Minnesota Department of Health said in a statement that included a link to a 16-page document guiding school districts.

With another month to go until the state hands down a set recommendation for schools’ reopening, Steele County districts have started preparing for each scenario and will plan to fine-tune after final guidance.

In Owatonna, Superintendent Jeff Elstad said at a Monday night School Board meeting that it’s possible the district may end up enacting all three scenarios at different points in time.

“For example, we may start the year with all of our students in session,” he added. “If we have an outbreak in Owatonna, we may have to take a three-week break in in-person instruction.”

Elstad also said that MDE had appeared to offer a little more flexibility to districts in how they respond next year— meaning that different schools could have different modes of learning happening simultaneously.

“There could be a time during the school year where we have all of our students in person, and a community within 15 minutes of us could be doing distance learning because they have an outbreak in their particular school,” said Elstad. “It could also be within a district … we could very well have an elementary that’s infected where we could have no in-person classes.”

If there was a necessity for distance learning, he added that it would look different from this past spring as the district has more time to plan and respond to end-of-year feedback from families. On the whole, he said he would much prefer having students back in the classroom because, “I know we do our best work when our students are there in person.”

Smaller districts, different considerations

In Blooming Prairie, Superintendent Chris Staloch echoed the desire to have students back in the building as soon as it’s safe to do so. If in-person or hybrid learning happens this fall, he said it will also be a challenge to balance safety and comfort for students — making sure they feel welcomed in the school, and that the learning environment can be as normal as possible when children return.

“We’re going to have to follow guidelines that are given to us, and it will look different. If we get the opportunity to have kids in our buildings, we also want to make it as normal as possible,” he said. “I hope that being a smaller school, we will have an advantage of being able to bring kids back, create those safe environments and keep them here for an extended period of time.”

Staloch added that he hoped to be able to offer some consistency with the different scenarios, being able to stick with one model for a longer period of time as opposed to moving back and forth more often.

Being a smaller district is also factoring heavily into the Medford Public School’s planning, given its unique situation of having both elementary and high school students together under one roof. Of the three scenarios administrators are planning for, Superintendent Mark Ristau said for him, hybrid learning would likely necessitate the most planning.

“Ideally, we will have some local control when it comes to the transition from one model to another if that’s the case,” he added via email. “I do indeed see us experiencing more than one model during the course of the year.”

For now, Ristau said the district has committees working on each of the three scenarios which will continue meeting until late July when educators can narrow in on the model that will be implemented in September.

Financial impact to all scenarios

In Owatonna, Elstad said all three possibilities will likely necessitate additional expenses on the district’s part. If classes are held remotely, he said the district would likely need to purchase additional technology to help ensure students have equal access to online learning.

“With the hybrid model, that has us all guessing at the scale of what that looks like. For instance, with transportation — if we can only put half of the typical students on a normal bus, that’s going to require more trips. It’s going to require more drivers,” he added. “If we’re in person, that will require more products as far as sanitizing materials and temperature scanners.”

At the moment, Elstad added that the district is replacing only vacant positions that he said “would be absolutely pertinent to fall learning … we’re having to tighten our belt.” In Owatonna, this is also ahead of an operating levy referendum this fall which will seek to renew and potentially increase voter-approved funding set to expire next year.

Ahead of receiving final guidance from MDE next month, all three superintendents say they have either started planning for all three scenarios or are beginning the process this week. Especially with the possibility of having to implement all three at some point next year, district leaders say they want to get ahead of the curve and have plans in place well in advance of the first day of school.

Steve Karnowski of the Associated Press contributed to this report. Reporter Bridget Kranz can be reached at 507-444-2376. Follow her on Twitter @OPPBridget. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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