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‘It’s an ever-moving target’: Minnesota’s rural school districts make plans — and prepare to pivot

In-person learning, a hybrid or distance learning? Districts are carefully watching county coronavirus numbers as they get ready to be nimble.

Backpacks and face masks: a Walmart back-to-school display in Encinitas, California.
Backpacks and face masks: a Walmart back-to-school display in Encinitas, California.
REUTERS/Mike Blake

Last Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz announced that the big back-to-school format decision will largely be decided at the local level. Apart from a blanket directive to all public districts and charter schools — to offer all interested families the option to partake in distance learning only — the biggest takeaway from that announcement came in the form of a table spelling out how infection rates correspond to various tiers of in-person learning.

Using biweekly county-level data, state Department of Health experts recommend that in-person learning for all students occur only when there are fewer than 10 cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents. A biweekly count of more than 10 cases triggers a scaled-back in-person approach — beginning with a shift to in-person learning for elementary students with hybrid learning for secondary students. Any 14-day infection count that exceeds 50 cases per 10,000 country residents warrants a shift to distance learning for all students. 

There’s a long list of variables to be factored in — things like building capacity, cleaning resources, access to the internet and devices like laptops that can impact educational equity, and parent input. These are the sorts of things that school leaders are considering as they work to finalize back-to-school plans. 

Both the Minneapolis and the St.Paul public school districts have already announced they plan to start the year in a distance-learning format. But in areas further outside of the metro, especially where the virus has been slower to spread, many district leaders are leaning toward opening school buildings for varying degrees of in-person learning this fall. 

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From the northern reaches of Bemidji to Onamia (located just south of Mille Lacs Lake), to Austin in southeastern Minnesota, here’s a look at how rural district leaders are planning for the start of the 2020-2021 school year. 

‘Be prepared to make a shift quickly and efficiently’

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz says that, even after the state released its final guidance, every answer seems to prompt more questions about how it’ll all look in practice. He finds assurance, though, in the fact that his administrative team — along with his peers in every other district, statewide — has already drafted back-to-school plans for three scenarios. 

That contingency planning began earlier this summer, after Walz and his admin team advised school leaders to think through a full return to distance learning, an in-person format that incorporates social distancing and other public health guidance, and a hybrid model that includes both in-person and distance learning. 

Tim Lutz
Tim Lutz
Lutz says he’s already sent out a letter to district staff and student households, letting everyone know there’s a strong possibility that they’ll start the school year in a hybrid model for all students. It’s not what the majority of his parents want, in the conservative-leaning Beltrami County. But he’s worried the politicization of the pandemic may impact his ability to open schools safely for in-person learning.  

He says he’s constantly getting emails claiming the pandemic is a hoax. So his initial email to folks was “more of a plea” than a final decision. “We all want kids in school,” he said, noting the only way to safely accomplish that is for everyone to take the public health guidance seriously, “to get numbers down in our county.”

He’s experiencing firsthand how quickly circumstances can change. When he and his team were working on their fall plans, as late as last Thursday, the county numbers were at 14 cases per 10,000 residents, he says. “So we were looking at in-person for elementary and hybrid for secondary schools. Within one short day, that changed.”

When the new numbers came out at 20 cases per 10,000 residents in Beltrami County, he says, the conversation shifted to looking at a district-wide hybrid model. And the numbers are continuing to increase. He’s hoping the board can vote on a start plan at its Aug. 17 board meeting, so they can work out final planning details. But he knows there are no guarantees that things won’t change again, in the final weeks leading up to the first day of school. 

“It’s an ever-moving target,” he said, noting it’s likely his district will end up experiencing all three formats at some point this coming school year. “We need to really be prepared to make a shift quickly and efficiently from one plan to another, if our numbers necessitate that down the road.”

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In thinking through options for a hybrid format, he says they’ve settled on a schedule that would split students up and have one group alternate, weekly, between distance learning and in-person learning. 

Part of that decision was driven by the fact that students have essentially a nine-day quarantine period, between each week of in-school learning, to assess their health before coming back into school for their next in-person week. It’s also easier to keep track of than an every-other-day format, Lutz said, noting it helps eliminate risks like a student mistakenly waiting outside in 20 below weather or a bus that’s never coming. 

When it comes to planning for extra curricular activities and vocational classes and bus routes at half capacity — and all of the other logistics that can’t be overlooked — Lutz says they’re still working out the details. When it comes to substitute teachers, he thinks they’ve come up with a plan that could work: hiring one or two full-time subs and assigning them to a single school building so they’re not “acting as vectors” for the virus between school buildings, if they do get infected.

‘Taking it one semester at a time’

In the Onamia Public Schools district, Superintendent Jason Vold says he’s currently planning for all elementary students — grades K through five or six — to start with in-person learning this fall. Secondary students will start out in a hybrid model that follows a block schedule: two consecutive days of in-person learning for group A, followed by two consecutive days of in-person learning for group B, and a flex day every Friday for students to access extra help or enrichment. 

“We’re also putting the elementary in an A and B group, in case we need to do elementary hybrid as well,” he said, noting they have enough capacity across all of their buildings to properly social distance. 

Jason Vold
Jason Vold
About 60 percent of his students are American Indian, a population more vulnerable, given longstanding disparities in health care access and more. Vold says he also has a number of intergenerational households to consider. With a number of families reaching out, early on, with requests for a distance-learning-only option, Vold committed to this offering before he knew Walz would mandate it. 

As of his latest count, more than 50 students will be going that route to start the school year. He’s asking families to commit to one format or the other, but notes his district is small enough that they can work with families on a case-by-case basis. “We’re looking at taking it one semester at a time,” he said, noting that if a family wanted to change course mid-semester district leaders would be able to “sit down with the family and make it work.”

Given the added time spent planning over the summer months, Vold offered a number of assurances that the learning experience — no matter the format — will be more streamlined and more equitable this fall than it was for many students and families this past spring, when the pandemic hit and thrust everyone into a distance learning format to finish out the school year.

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They let every student keep their assigned Chrome books at home over the summer, so everyone had a device to access summer online learning opportunities. District leaders also mapped out every single household’s wifi needs and Vold says they have a plan to ensure every household has internet access this fall. Additionally, they’ll be starting the year by holding individual meetings with each family, to walk though how the year will look and provide training on the online platforms their children will be using. Those platforms have been streamlined, so that all kids in grades K-2 will be on Seesaw. All other students will be using Google classroom. “We have tribal considerations built into all of our plans,” Vold adds, noting their relationships and lines of communication with tribal leaders are well-established. 

In troubleshooting beyond technology and instructional formats, he’s running through the seemingly endless list of “what-ifs” that all of his peers, statewide, are grappling with ahead of the school year. Running through a few, he says several staff members have already volunteered to get a bus license, to serve as back-up drivers. And they’re considering purchasing some large outdoor tents to hold more classes outdoors, weather permitting. A portion of any additional state dollars that come through will likely go toward hiring a public health consultant to assist their one school nurse, Vold adds. 

“Having everyone going into the year understanding that no matter how we start the year,  things can change 10 times, 12 times, 20 times. Just be ready for things to change,” he said. “That’s what we really talked about, from a curriculum standpoint. If we prepare for distance learning every day, it’s much easier to flip into hybrid or in-person than the other way around.”

‘Helping parents learn how to use the technology’

Austin Public School Superintendent David Krenz says he’s hoping to firm up back-to-school plans at the school board meeting scheduled for this upcoming Monday. 

Numbers earlier this summer would have locked the district into distance learning for all students, due to a spike in cases largely tied to outbreaks at local meat processing plants. But those numbers have steadily come down since late May/early June. Current numbers place them in the in-person for elementary and hybrid for secondary tier, per state guidance.

David Krenz
David Krenz
“What we’re seeing is we have been very stable over the last few weeks,” Krenz said, crediting the current downward trend in infection rates to precautions his county and large industries in the area have been taking. “That’s very positive for us. The biggest thing we want is to keep our kids safe. Then the most important thing, instructionally, is to get our kids back in schools.”

He had an opportunity to test run some communications strategies and logistics this summer, in rolling out a year-round option that began last week. He’s hoping that experience will help make for a smoother rollout of whatever model they implement this fall. 

In preparation for summer classes, they surveyed families and staff in late June to assess their comfort levels with in-person learning, and to hear what safety precautions they wanted to see in place. Based on that feedback, they stocked up on face masks, face shields and cleaning supplies — all of the things that state officials have since said they’ll help supply to schools this fall.

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So far, they haven’t had to respond to any cases of virus detection on school grounds. And all of the uncertainty around how students will adapt to having to wear face masks and social distance from their peers and wash their hands more diligently while at school seems to be settling down now that teachers have had a chance to go over the new expectations. 

“They’re learning about something important — not just an inconvenience, but something that could help them in the future, for their own health and safety,” Krenz said. 

The other big takeaway from this past spring, and from summer classes, has to do with parent communication and support, especially when it comes to technology training. In planning for summer classes, about 30 percent of families surveyed said they’d only be comfortable with a distance learning format. To better address individual concerns – and to more clearly spell out what safety precautions were being implemented — school leaders and staff held one-on-one meetings with families outside, separated by an 8-foot table. After those conferences, the number of families requesting distance-only options dropped to about 10 percent. 

“That was critical to helping us plan,” Krenz said, noting he then created more sections, to allow for proper social distancing. “We’ll do the same thing as we look to the traditional calendar, to ensure parents are well-informed on what safety precautions we’ll be taking.”

Likewise, he says they’ll use those meetings to “help the parents learn how to use the technology,” in preparation for distance learning. And they’re hoping to maximize on at least some level of in-person learning for students at the start of the school year so that students can not only get oriented to the various online platforms and formats, but also feel connected to school. 

“We hope to be in-person … at least through that first quarter, to really establish those relationships with the kids,” he said.