Science classroom

Minnesota School Districts are patiently awaiting guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education on how the 2020-2021 school year is anticipated to look. In Waseca, the new superintendent is working with faculty to be prepared for whatever model of teaching may be required. (Press file photo)

With less than a month under his belt as Waseca’s new superintendent, Eric Huspith is already getting accustomed to uncharted territory.

During the Waseca School Board meeting last week, Hudspith gave School Board members a rundown in what the district’s administrative team is doing to try to stay ahead of the unknown when it comes to the 2020-21 school year.

“We are waiting anxiously for guidance from the Department of Education,” Hudspith said, adding that he anticipates the state’s superintendents to have a more clear direction during a meeting this coming Thursday. “But we are not waiting to prepare.”

In preparing for the fall, Hudspith said that the obvious question lingering in the air for teachers, students, and parents: What will instruction look? Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the country are faced with three options: the traditional in-class model, distancing learning and a hybrid.

“We know how to do instruction if all our kids are in school — if we’re bringing 1,900 students into school every day to do in-class learning at various sites we know what teaching will look like,” Hudspith said. “What we don’t know is how facility areas, transportation, health and safety, and how to keep kids spaced out and social distanced throughout the course of the day will look.”

Hudspith said that when it comes to distance learning, a method all the school districts were thrown into following the initial wave of executive orders from Gov. Tim Walz in response to COVID-19, the Waseca schools have room to improve.

“One thing we know is that if we are in distancing learning, we have to get better,” Huspith said. The district needs to find ways improve synchronization of classes, holding students accountable, and making learning materials accessible to everyone. I think one thing that is worth noting is that as of this moment we are not in a stay-at-home order or a shelter-in-place order, so with a fully distance learning model I anticipate us being able to offer some sort of opportunity for students to connect with teachers on site.”

According to Hudspith, connecting on site under a distance learning model could include regular student-teacher check-ins.

The hybrid model is where Hudspith said most of the attention is being focused, primarily because there is a “lack of discretion” as far as how that model could look. Hudspith said that districts are tackling this method differently across both the state and the country, and that Waseca schools haven’t yet decided how its hybrid model will look.

“I can’t tell you right now that we’ve made a decision on how that’s going to look, but I can tell you that our leading candidate for a hybrid model is clusters of students in the school,” Hudspith said during the meeting. He explained that this model could take the form of two separate groups of students, each coming into school for two consecutive days during the week, with the fifth day of the week serving as a distance-learning day for all.

“We also know that there are students who need to come to school every day, whether that is students with special learning needs, students with disabilities, our language learners, our youngest learners – the list can go on and on, but we will identify those learners with our principals,” Hudspith said.

Hudspith said that the Minnesota Department of Education says all students will have the option of distancing learning if their family decides they do not feel comfortable returning to the classroom due to COVID-19. Hudspith said that there may also be some staff who would feel more comfortable with distance learning as well, and that the district will have to find a way to best support the needs of those students and staff.

Hudspith believes that there could be the need to transition between the three different models throughout the course of the school year, but that the “obvious goal” is to try to get students in the classroom.

“We all feel very strongly that we want to have our kids back in school,” Hudspith said. “We just had a meeting between our negotiations team with the teachers union, and if there was one thing that came out loud and clear it’s that they want to see their students. But we are preparing one way or another.”

According to Hudspith, the Department of Education acknowledges that there is a chance all the school districts could be required to start with the same model across the state, but that the deputy commissioner anticipates that the decision will be left up to the local level.

Reach Reporter Annie Granlund at 507-444-2378 or follow her on Twitter @OPPAnnie. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota.

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