In a handful of metro-area public school districts in Minnesota, the school year starts ahead of Labor Day weekend. Teachers come back a week or so ahead of students to prepare their classrooms and attend workshops. And though the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed that timeline for some districts that have opted to start the year in a hybrid format, it hasn’t for all.
Teachers in places like Eden Prairie, Stillwater and Hastings officially started their school year this week — some being granted the option to partake in teacher workshops remotely, others being instructed to report to their school buildings and attend workshops over platforms like Zoom. Their students are scheduled to return to their classrooms as early as Monday for their in-person learning days.
They have a lot of ground to cover in a short span of time: new COVID-19 safety procedures and protocol, tech tool tutorials to better support remote learning, plus any other professional development training sessions that they’d normally have on the docket.
School administrators are hoping the COVID-19 information dump will offer teachers some added assurances. In some instances, though, it’s having the opposite effect. Teachers are questioning how proper social distancing will actually be put into practice inside of their classrooms and wondering how health screenings will happen, logistically, as students enter the building.
Even teachers in metro-area hybrid districts that don’t bring students back until Sept. 8 have started going public with their concerns this week. On Monday evening, educators in Anoka-Hennepin, White Bear Lake and Savage rallied to draw public attention to coronavirus-related school safety concerns. Educators in Osseo presented their concerns to the school board Tuesday evening. And members of the Chaska Education Association held an informational picket outside of an elementary school Wednesday afternoon.
In the Eden Prairie district, teachers came back to school buildings on Monday for their first day of teacher workshops. Feeling skeptical of the plan to safely welcome students back to school buildings by Aug. 31, a number of teachers showed up at the regularly scheduled school board meeting later that evening.
On their behalf, board director Veronica Stoltz attempted to add two new items to the meeting agenda, for further discussion: one looking to delay the student start date and another to discuss the safety of students and staff. No one seconded her motions, so they both failed.
Video captured by audience members shows Stoltz asking what it would take to call an emergency board meeting and being told to “look up the statute yourself” by a fellow board member — a reply that unleashed outcries of disgust and frustration from audience members.
Then, on Wednesday, the district announced a two-day delay for students, pushing their start date back to Sept. 2 to give teachers more time to prepare.
Brett Johnson, senior director of community relations and communications for the district, says district leaders have been working hard to ensure a safe learning environment for students and educators, as they return for in-person learning. And while he’s not surprised that some teachers left day one of workshop week feeling anxious, he’s hoping that they’ll begin to feel more settled by the end of the week — once they’ve been trained on the new chemicals being used for cleaning, have a chance to measure out desk spacing in their classrooms, see stickers marking proper social distancing placed in common areas, review protocol for any suspected COVID-19 cases in their buildings, and so on.
“It is just becoming more comfortable with the routines, the process, knowing where the hand sanitizer station is, and seeing that everyone is wearing a mask. All of those things start to build confidence over time,” he said.
In terms of COVID-related safety supplies, he says the supply chain of things like hand soap and sanitizer seems to be holding up. And the district already has cloth face masks that it purchased earlier this summer for every student and staff member — including a spare stash — in stock, along with non-contact thermometers that’ll be used to take temperature checks as people enter the building each day. He’s still waiting to hear back on a delivery date for hospital-grade air filters that the district ordered for all buildings.
In addition, they’ll soon be picking up a supply of cloth face masks and clear shields that Gov. Tim Walz promised to provide for all students and educators, statewide. All of that inventory shipped out to regional cooperatives earlier this week, says Wendy Hatch, a spokesperson for the state Department of Education.
A crash course in pandemic protocol
As school leaders work through establishing new COVID-19 safety protocols for each school site, they’ve been consulting a guidance document published by the state Department of Health. Depending on which format they’ve opted to start the school year with — in-person learning, hybrid or distance learning only — the department lays out both requirements and additional recommendations for everything from social distancing protocol and face coverings to transportation and handling a suspected positive case of COVID-19.
The allowable format in a district may change, as county-level infection rates increase or decrease. While Walz gave school leaders the power to choose their back-to-school format, his administration also published a table dictating safe levels of in-person learning for various levels of county-level COVID-19 infection rates. It’s not binding, he explained at a press conference at the end of July. But it’s largely been interpreted by many in the school community and the general public as such.
There’s some wiggle room built into the state’s school planning guidance, as well. While the document spells out some clear non-negotiable rules — like all students, staff and other people present in school buildings, district offices and on school transportation must wear a face covering — other safety requirements are granted more flexibility by phrases like “to the extent possible.”
For instance, regarding proper social distancing, schools with any level of in-person learning are instructed to add 6-foot spacing markers in spaces that they may congregate. The guidance also encourages at least 6 feet of spacing between people at all times, but notes “it is not always feasible to have 6 feet of social distancing during primary instructional times in the classroom.” Those in a hybrid model are given an added requirement: limit occupancy in school buildings and on buses to 50 percent, or less.
Elementary students in the Eastern Carver County Schools district will be returning for in-person learning four days a week, with Wednesday reserved for distance learning for all students, so everyone gets acclimated in the event that the district needs to pivot, in response to increased COVID-19 infection rates, explained Erin Rathke, assistant superintendent of schools for the district.
“In-person means 100 percent of students,” she said, explaining the elementary plan. “So there may not be social distancing in all of the areas of classrooms. But that also doesn’t mean that we haven’t taken some precautions with classrooms.”
Classrooms will not look the same this fall, she explained. They’ve removed all of the flexible seating features that students usually choose to personalize their learning experience and have set up more traditional forward-facing seating arrangements. Group work will look different, as will recess, pull-out sessions for one-on-one support and more. For instance, the district is looking into purchasing scrubs and some sort of barrier or partition to help limit exposure during one-on-one sessions.
In an effort to help ease teachers back into in-person learning this fall, Rathke says district leaders hosted multiple listening sessions over the summer months, including outreach to each specialist teacher to hear their concerns and to troubleshoot in advance of the new school year. “We’ve been thoughtful. We’ve been listening. And we’ve been collaborative,” said Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams.
Chris Commers, president of the Chaska Education Association, agrees that school planning efforts have been collaborative. School leaders are “doing everything humanly possible — and more — to provide safety for kids and teachers,” he said, adding “it’s not enough.”
He and several of his colleagues held an informational picket outside of La Academia Elementary on Wednesday afternoon. New teachers came back to buildings for orientation this week. Returning teachers will join them next week, for back-to-school workshops that’ll focus largely on new COVID-19 safety protocol and instructional preparation. Then students start on Sept. 8.
A 100 percent in-person model at the elementary level means no proper social distancing inside classrooms, he said. It also means art, music and other specialist teachers will be serving approximately 600 students a week, raising added exposure concerns.
“We have a very modest ask of our community: that is just their awareness of the things that we’re facing,’” he said ahead of the picket. “We don’t feel that the public and families understand the extent to which the students’ day is impacted by the pandemic.”
‘Get through the first day of school’
In the Stillwater Area Public Schools district, hybrid students are scheduled to return for their designated in-person learning days on Sept. 8 as well. Teachers, however, have already officially begun their school year with workshops that began this week.
The district pulled four professional development days that had been scheduled to take place later in the year, and moved them up to extend the timeline teachers had to prepare for the start of the school year. Training covers everything from cultural responsiveness and safety to best practices in hybrid instruction, says Rachel Steil, an English teacher at Stillwater Area High School and a state finalist for 2020 teacher of the year.
“Personally, I feel a great deal of anxiety, even though I do feel like our district has spent all summer preparing for a lot of different scenarios — doing everything from mapping out one-way directional hallway maps to safety protocol to social distancing to washing, bathrooms, water. Every little logistical piece, they’ve done,” she said. “And yet I still think there’s a level of anxiety about: What is that going to look like, in reality, when we have these children in our classrooms? When we release them out into the hallway? What happens when we get our first case? What are the logistics in terms of being fluid between instructional models?”
Wednesday morning, Steil opted to participate in workshop sessions remotely. But she’d planned on heading back into the building that afternoon to physically measure out 6 feet of spacing between each desk. Last weekend, she went in to rearrange furniture and remove things like decorations and the broadcast studio she had set up in the back of her classroom, with two anchor chairs. “It does look a bit more sterile than I’m used to,” she said, adding it was a “pretty jarring moment to see what that’s going to look like, when I was up in the front of the room.”
That being said, she’s doing her best to keep a positive outlook on the upcoming school year. She’s hoping it will inspire more innovation and better use of technology in the classroom. Keeping tabs on metro-area teachers who have been demonstrating to flag safety concerns this week, Steil said she can “appreciate the anxiety and concern around what’s ahead of us.”
“I think there’s a part of me that’s just wanting to get through the first day of school,” she said, adding she’s anxious to figure out “what’s going to work for me. And this is where I need to give myself some grace.”