While Minnesota’s public schools remain closed to in-person learning for the duration of the current academic year, the state Department of Education has approved two new exceptions that give schools the option to host some on-site assessments during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assessments related to bilingual and multilingual seals that cannot be proctored at home are now allowed to take place, in-person, on school grounds. These new accommodations also apply to hands-on course completion requirements that cannot be completed at home, like lab-based summative assignments and capstone evaluations.
In both circumstances, schools that choose to host these assessments on-site are being asked to prioritize graduating students.
Must adhere to health guidelines
They’ve also been told that they must adhere to the accompanying public health guidelines developed by the Minnesota Department of Health. That includes establishing a staggered testing schedule “to minimize the potential for gathering,” conducting health screenings for all individuals entering the facility, setting up hand hygiene stations at the entrance, and more.
This announcement went out to all Minnesota superintendents during a private COVID-19 update call with state Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker on Tuesday. It went public Wednesday.
The decision to reopen schools for these two specific uses follows Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order from last week that authorized Ricker to consult with state’s Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm to explore options for safely allowing the use of school buildings for needs that cannot be met in a distance learning format.
The hands-on course completion exception, now granted permission to take place inside school buildings, calls out two specific types of courses that can lead to industry credentials in either health care or child care/early learning.
“We recognize that our students who are so close to an industry credential in health care or child care or early education are very much needed right now,” Ricker said. “We would want to make sure that they are available for all of our work in Minnesota, as we try to build out our health supports.”
Districts that offer these sorts of opportunities include those that have established career pathways in their secondary schools, in which students select an area of focus and aim to graduate from high school with relevant workforce experience, credentialing, or both. For instance, students at Burnsville High School can enroll in a certified nursing assistant program that prepares them to take a state certification exam.
Limited language assessment
The language assessment exception, also now granted permission to take place on-site, doesn’t extend to all language courses. It only pertains to students who are pursuing a bilingual or multilingual seal, which can translate into college credit at postsecondary institutions.
Ricker says the tie to college credit made this a priority item, as did equity considerations.
“We recognize that for a lot of our students, they’re earning a [seal] in their home language,” she said, adding it’s a way to ensure equitable access to these assessments and to “prioritize some equitable recognition for students.”
This spring, approximately 500 students — in grades 10, 11 and 12 — had signed up to be tested for a language seal in the St. Paul Public Schools district, says Kevin Burns, a district spokesperson. Roughly half had already completed their assessments before the school closures, back in March.
District leaders have not yet made a decision about whether to reopen school buildings to complete these language assessments, Burns said.
Asked if the department will be issuing guidance on graduation ceremonies — which are approaching in less than a month, for some schools — Ricker said she and Malcolm are currently discussing “what some safe practices could be for recognizing the class of 2020.”
As for a deadline, she said: “We are accelerating our timeline for this as faithful as we can.”
Asked about the possibility of reopening schools to students in need of specialized one-on-one support, from paraprofessionals or other specialists, Ricker said the “proximity of the support to the student and of the student to the support” can be a limiting factor.
“Physical distance is still a part of the public health guidance,” she said.
Exploring other requests
Her department has been receiving lots of questions from parents and educators about the possibility of other allowable uses for school buildings during this time, she says. They’ll continue to explore those requests. But for the time being, the only other activities on-site continue to be child care for essential workers and the distribution of meals and paper assignment packets, as an alternative to online learning.
Looking ahead to the start of the 2020-2021 school year, Ricker says contingency plans are under way — for a return to school buildings, for distance learning and for a hybrid option.
“We’re thinking through every moment of a student’s day. In each scenario: What does transportation look like? Passing time in the hallway? Lunchtime? Classroom settings?” she said. “We have to think about them with a public health lens.”