Back to school

Minnesota schools are busy developing plans to deliver education in the 2020-21 school year — three, to be precise.

The three plans aren’t new. They’ve been on the radar of educators, but more information regarding what details must be in the plans was offered June 18 by the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Health. The details came in a 100-page guide.

“It’s got specific details for each one of the models,” said Daron VanderHeiden, Hutchinson Public Schools superintendent. “They based it on what would be required and what they would recommend. ... Now we can at least put some detail into it and be more precise in our planning.”

Daron VanderHeiden

Daron VanderHeiden

THREE SCENARIOS

One scenario has all students in school and in classrooms. While students and teachers should try to create space, social distancing will not be enforced during instruction time.

“(This option) would be impossible if we were going to enforce and follow the recommendations of the Department of Health, the social distancing,” VanderHeiden said. “You couldn’t put 400 kids in a cafeteria and have them have lunch together.”

Another scenario, a hybrid model, would have schools limit the number of students on buses and in facilities to 50 percent maximum occupancy. Social distancing of 6 feet would be enforced, and if it cannot be, the number of occupants in a room or vehicle must be reduced further. The scenario would also call for schools to create models for meal and school material pickup without contact.

Students not in the building would receive distance learning in a manner similar to that experienced by Minnesota students this past spring through a combination of digital tools and material pickup.

Litchfield Public Schools Superintendent Beckie Simenson said the hybrid model may allow schools to have a portion of students in school in the morning, and another portion in school in the afternoon.

Beckie Simenson

Beckie Simenson

“But that’s a dilemma because transportation gets costly,” she said.

The final scenario, more distance learning, reflects what would be called for if the state decides students need to stay home. Schools would have to prepare a complete distance learning plan as they did in the final few months this past school year.

Teachers recorded lessons, offered documents through Google Classrooms and hooked up webcams to tutor students live. Material drop sites were used to connect students with classroom supplies. Educators would need to expand those plans to possibly encompass the entire school year.

FURTHER COMPLICATIONS

While schools have been tasked with developing all three models in preparation for the next school year, there is more to consider. Gov. Tim Walz’s office will make a determination based on COVID-19 metrics and announce the week of July 27 which model schools me reopen under.

If COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize or improve, the state may call for in-person learning. If clusters of cases appear in a classroom or school, or if metrics worsen at a local or regional level, the state may call for the hybrid model. If metrics worsen significantly, the state may call for more distance learning. Simenson said she would like to see schools have as much local control over what plan is used as possible.

“We do not have the population density of Minneapolis and St. Paul,” she said, adding that the best scenario will differ from school to school. “We have great relationships with school nurses, police (and) the sheriff.”

It appears schools will be invited to coordinate with the state throughout the school year, as shifts from scenario to scenario may be called for. Should conditions change within a region or across the state, all schools or only certain schools may have to react by changing to another model. VanderHeiden said instructions for schools to be ready to change models throughout the school year if necessary came as a surprise.

“It doesn’t sound like it’s necessarily going to be a statewide decision everywhere all the time,” he said. “It sounds like it’s going to be collaborative.”

The possibility for change presents a challenge for students and families as well, VanderHeiden noted, as parents may end up in a situation where childcare, transportation and/or work plans have to rapidly change to accommodate a shift in students’ schedules. The school is using surveys to gather information from families, and it may schedule listening sessions to discuss the three plans for the coming school year.

“It’s going to take us a good month to put these plans together,” VanderHeiden said.

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