In a 4-2 vote Monday evening, the Hutchinson School Board chose in-person learning as its base learning model for the 2020-21 school year. That means the plan is to open schools for in-person learning September, but that could change throughout the school year, or even before the school year begins, based on the number of local COVID-19 cases.
Board members Byron Bettenhausen, Keith Kamrath, Brian Pollmann and Chris Wilke supported the resolution. Board members Tiffany Barnard and JoEllen Kimball voted against it. Those in favor highlighted a desire to return structure to the lives of students, to help at-risk students, the need to aid students with mental health and social challenges, and confidence in the school's health and safety plan modeled around state mandates. Those opposed highlighted concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment, the availability and speed of COVID-19 tests, a lack of substitute teachers, and challenges associated with finding day care should the model quickly change in the future. Opponents favored a model with a mixture of in-person learning and distance-learning, known as hybrid.
"The state has assured us that they are going to provide those (personal protective) items to us prior to the first day of school," Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden said. "But I can't tell you we have those yet. The regional support centers, from my understanding, they don't have them in possession either, but the state continues to tell us that they will be there for us. So the masks, the shields, those items, along with test kits for our educators. ... We share those same concerns as well."
Plans for the school year were also discussed at length in a meeting this past Friday.
In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendations calling for a flexible approach, Minnesota schools must follow mandated health guidelines in school buildings and for student transportation. The state will also advise schools which education model to use based on their county's 14-day COVID-19 case rate per 10,000 residents. As a result, schools must prepare for five scenarios:
- in-person learning for all students
- in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning (a combination of in-person and distance learning) for secondary students
- hybrid learning for all students
- hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students
- distance learning for all students.
Each of the five models come with their own health requirements.
Schools will be able to determine if they follow the state's guidance or adjust up or down along the model options. Determinations may also be made per building if there are differing factors, but the state may approve or deny any of those decisions.
The most recent determination from the state shows the school on track for in-person education this school year, with an infection rate of 4.47 in McLeod County from July 12-25. But that could change as there was a steep increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases in the county reported last week.
To help prepare for the coming school year, District 423 asked families to fill out a survey regarding their feelings on COVID-19 and school safety. The survey asked what decision would be made if the school opened with a plan for in-person learning. Results indicated:
- 52 students would enroll elsewhere,
- 305 would request a distance learning option, and
- 2,266 would attend school in person.
Another 213 students were not accounted for with the survey.
"We've also assured them if they do change their mind between now and when school starts, we'll certainly accommodate them," VanderHeiden said.
One of the school's main concerns is transportation. While it is implementing plans to keep the school clean and apply social distancing rules, school buses are one of the most challenging places to follow guidelines.
According to the survey:
- 1,128 students would opt out of school transportation. Families opting for students to receive distance learning were mostly accounted for within this number.
- 1,495 students would use school transportation.
He hopes for route information to be available within the next week. Major changes are not expected.
"We've got a social distancing plan for our transportation system," VanderHeiden said. "We would load all of our buses from back to front and would unload ... front to back."
Siblings would be asked to sit together, and buses will have seating charts. Administrators believe that due to the number of families opting out of school transportation, it will be feasible to follow social distancing guidelines.
"(Transportation is) our largest density in one spot over a time period," said Brian Mohr, the school's director of transportation. "A lot of our high-density stops are very close to our building. So that high density will not be on the bus very long. Hopefully they are getting on and off within about a 10-minute time period."
In order to practice social distancing, several changes will be made in school lunch rooms.
Before entering the line — which will be marked to keep students 6 feet apart — students must use hand sanitizer. They will talk to kitchen staff through a sneeze guard. Staff will hand the disposable tray from person to person to add food, but the student will not touch it until the end. Students will, however, retrieve their own water or milk. Instead of having students use a keypad to enter a code for payment, staff will have a sheet of barcodes to scan, with a code for each name. Students will have options to sit in the cafeteria and elsewhere in order to have more room to spread out.
More lunch periods will help spread out the student population as well. The school is considering an option to send breakfast home with students to eat the next morning, but state approval is needed.
In order to maintain student and teacher health in classrooms, district educators are looking for ways to take items out of rooms and make more room. Storage spaces, for example, are being moved elsewhere. A guiding rule is that no two people can be within 6 feet of each other for more than 15 minutes, even with face coverings, and faces must be covered.
Masks will be required, and the school hopes to have some on hand to help if there are mistakes. There will be alternatives for students who need to use face shields. There will also be outdoor face covering breaks throughout the day.
Band, choir and music classes will use auditoriums and outdoor spaces to spread out.
Students confirmed to have COVID-19 must be quarantined for 14 days and be symptom free. The school will also conduct contract tracing for students with a diagnosis. Students with symptoms will be separated from their classrooms. The school is also taking precautions ahead of time by flushing all water systems and changing air filters. Filters are also adjusted to maximize outside air.
Even if the year starts with in-school learning, options will remain for distance learning. However, distance learning in the 2020-21 school year will not mean a lighter load or a shorter school day. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade will attend school digitally with a distance learning teacher assigned per grade level. Older students will attend their classes over the internet.
"It's not condensed, we're not losing days," said Michael Scott, director of teaching and learning. "If a student is at home, they need to have the same instruction and equitable access to those (physical education) and art and those special areas just like if they were in a classroom."
Students learning at home will still have a full school day and be expected to log in and watch instruction during class periods at the regular time. Attendance will be counted.