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How Minnesota schools are preparing for distance learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Distance learning is defined by the state Department of Education as each student receiving a daily interaction with their licensed teachers and receiving appropriate, equitable educational materials.

Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker
Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker: “At the end of this short-term closure — which we acknowledge is also during Minnesota’s spring break season — the situation is going to be re-evaluated on a daily basis, and even an hourly basis.”
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

As news of large-scale school closures in response to COVID-19 in other states began making headlines last Thursday — coupled with news of a handful of school closures here in Minnesota — local educators had more questions than answers. 

Aberdeen Rodriguez, a ninth-grade English teacher at Edison High School, in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, says speculation over a potential school closure largely distracted from academics on Friday. “I have felt similar in a snow emergency,” she said, adding she spent the day “checking emails — probably four times as much—  looking for information, trying to essentially make some teacher plans.” 

The announcement she was anticipating didn’t come until Sunday, when Gov. Tim Walz announced a mandatory eight-day school closure statewide, scheduled to begin no later than Wednesday. 

The executive order comes as a proactive measure, intended to give educators a student-free block of time to rethink how to deliver instruction, meals and other vital student services remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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This planning period officially begins Wednesday, March 18, and runs through Friday, March 27. Some districts have opted to close earlier, but state leaders said they wanted to give districts an opportunity to distribute resources to students, if need be, at the start of the week.

“While children have proven less vulnerable to this virus, [and] we haven’t seen significant spreading in our schools, we do anticipate that COVID-19 will have a sizable impact on our education system in the coming weeks, months, and potentially the coming year,” Walz said at Sunday’s press conference. “We cannot wait until the pandemic is in our schools to figure things out.”

The ‘most comprehensive plan’

Just three days prior, Walz had said he wasn’t planning to order school closures. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still does not recommend school closures. But in the interest of facilitating a more orderly transition to remote learning — in the increasing likelihood of a statewide closure of school buildings — Walz said he and his team were busy piecing together a plan that would account for things like the child care needs of health care workers with elementary-aged children and access to school meals that many children rely on. 

Gov. Tim Walz
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
Gov. Tim Walz
The executive order requires schools to continue providing meals during this planning period. It also requires schools to provide child care for the elementary-aged children (ages 12 and under) of health care workers and first responders, so that these professionals are not pulled away from the health care system during this critical time. Schools should consider extending the same child care services to school employees, Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said. 

The order also states that no makeup days will be required as a result of this mandatory  closure; and that all school employees are expected to continue working (including hourly employees like paraprofessionals, nutrition staff and school bus drivers), unless they have a medical condition that puts them at greater risk — in which case that should be allowed to stay home. 

Given these new expectations, school leaders will spend the next two weeks fleshing out what, exactly, all of this looks like on the ground. 

They’ll be turning to a school closure guidance document for all public school districts and charter schools that the state Department of Education released Sunday morning. It outlines the “most comprehensive plan for what school closing looks like, of any state in the nation,” Walz said. 

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While state officials are still working out a contingency plan for things like standardized testing and other details, they are asking school leaders, teachers and staff to develop plans to deliver distance learning — defined by the state Department of Education as each student receiving a daily interaction with their licensed teachers and receiving appropriate, equitable educational materials, Ricker explained. 

“At the end of this short-term closure — which we acknowledge is also during Minnesota’s spring break season — the situation is going to be re-evaluated on a daily basis, and even an hourly basis,” Ricker said, noting families and educators should plan to resume instruction on March 30. 

From tech devices to ‘old school’ methods

School leaders scrambled to send out communications to staff and families following Walz’s executive order on Sunday. Some have called for an immediate school closure, while others are easing into the shutdown. 

On the heels of a three-day teacher strike that ended early Friday morning — in large part due to the mounting pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic — St. Paul Public Schools has opted to keep students home Monday and Tuesday, with staff reporting to school to work on creating a distance learning plan. 

The Minneapolis Public Schools district remains open today, for staff and families to prepare for the temporary school closure, which the district will begin a day early on Tuesday. 

A two-hour drive south, in the Alden-Conger Public School District, schools will remain open today and tomorrow so that families have a chance to prepare for the upcoming disruption. “Really we hadn’t been able to give them any opportunity to get things ready for a closure,” Superintendent Brian Shanks said in an interview Sunday evening, adding the other reason his schools are staying open at the start of the week is to help instill a sense of calm in the community. 

“We want to give the kids a couple days to see their friends, have a little normalcy,” he said, adding this gives them an opportunity to grab text books and materials they need “if this is longer than eight days, which I have every belief it’s going to be.”

At the high-school level, most teachers and students are already fluent in using technology to deliver and receive instruction, he says. But they need to strategize how to bring elementary teachers and students into the fold, in preparation for distance learning. That means lending out any spare devices to families that need them, and considering low-tech methods of educational delivery to help bridge any gaps in internet access. 

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“We’re looking at old-school methods of providing education,” he said, noting that may mean dropping off homework materials and picking up completed assignments via school bus drivers and completing student-teacher check-ins over the phone. 

The thing he’s most concerned about, in the event of a prolonged closure of school buildings, however, has nothing to do with lesson plans. Given the high percentage of free-and-reduced-price lunch students his district serves, he’s most worried about figuring out a way to continue providing access to free school meals that these students rely on. He says he met with his administrative team Sunday to discuss options for food distribution — everything from establishing a pick-up location at school to establishing meal hubs out in the community, or a meal delivery system. 

While his food distribution concerns extend to the neighboring rural district that he oversees as superintendent — the Glenville-Emmons Schools district — Shanks says the planning period there will look a lot different because it already has an e-learning plan in place. 

It’s already a one-to-one district, meaning each student has access to his or her own iPad, a tool that teachers have already integrated into lesson delivery and assignments. 

Staying connected online

Speaking alongside Walz and Ricker at the press conference Sunday, Christine Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, mentioned they have the capacity to equip every secondary student with a tech device to help facilitate e-learning. But distance learning will look different for elementary students, who “may not have a device in their hands every day.”

That means taking time these next two weeks to take inventory of the resources families have at home. And the information gathering doesn’t stop there.

“We’ve actually started Google Docs with how we might organize our work over the next few days and couple of weeks — to really rethink everything that we do,” she said.  

Osorio says her staff will be tackling a number of other important tasks, like re-evaluating current cleaning practices at school and how they stagger lunch periods. They’ll also be getting a better handle on which staff and students need to self-quarantine after returning from spring break travels, or stay home to further limit their exposure due to a compromised immune system. 

“The optimist in me is ‘We are going to learn to do so many things better,’” she said. “I think we’re going to find some real innovation that’s going to grow out of this work together.”

Christine Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Christine Osorio, superintendent of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, mentioned on Sunday that they have the capacity to equip every secondary student with a tech device to help facilitate e-learning.
Students at Venture Academy, a grades 6-12 blended learning charter school located in Minneapolis, are also already outfitted with one-to-one devices. And, by the end of the day Friday, school leaders had already finalized a back-up plan for instruction to continue in the event of a school closure. That meant enlisting the help of all staff to come up with creative ways to continue vital services like individualized special education services and mental health supports for students remotely. 

“Honestly, when the NBA shut down … we decided to prepare for school closure,” Michael Warner,  CEO of Venture Academy, said in a phone interview Sunday. “It seemed like it would happen. We just didn’t know when.”

Heading into an additional period of planning, strategies for dealing with attendance issues and mental health supports are top of mind, he says. 

“We work with a population that is truant to begin with. And lots will now be baby-sitters for younger kids, while doing class online,” he said. “You have to call then, text them, find a way to get them to show up to their social worker meetings,  to science class. That will probably be the hardest part for us.”