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‘There was a positive energy in our building today’: Farmington, Hastings districts hold student orientations

This week a handful of Minnesota districts kicked off their new formats of part in-person, part-distanced learning.

Hastings students returned to campus for orientation week on Monday.
Hastings students returned to campus for orientation week on Monday.
Photo by Supt. Robert McDowell

First-graders in Rachel Bachman’s class, at Kennedy Elementary School in Hastings, got to meet their teacher earlier this week — in person. 

Everyone had a face mask on, but that part didn’t feel particularly odd or uncomfortable, since many students had been wearing them in places like day care or the grocery store all summer, Bachman said. Even her quick segue into new COVID-19 protocol — “I’m excited to meet you. And I’ll tell you how we’re going to use hand sanitizer coming in and out of our room” — didn’t seem to dampen the mood. 

From there, they got to check out their classroom, locate their spaced-out desk and see where they’ll be allowed to put their belongings. “I don’t feel like there was any apprehension,” Bachman said. “They just all wanted to be in the building. And they were excited to see their teachers and be back.”

It’s the sort of back-to-school experience that many more Minnesota students and families had been anticipating. But a growing number of metro-area districts using a hybrid format — with part in-person and part distanced learning — have pushed back their start date for students, or pivoted entirely to distance learning to start the school year. 

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School leaders say these changes are largely being driven by logistical issues, like the need to redistribute educators and the need to iron out more safety concerns and lesson plans. Plans are also easily complicated by COVID-19 infection cases. For instance, state health officials reported earlier this week that several smaller schools and school districts have had to change course upon learning teachers had become infected once they began meeting up, in advance of students’ return to buildings.

While there seem to be fewer guarantees this year — especially when it comes to in-person learning — a handful of districts kicked off a hybrid school year this week by inviting students in for orientation days. Here’s a look at how the week started in the Farmington Area Public Schools and the Hastings Public Schools districts. 

Face masks and school photos

In-person learning days for students in Farmington who enrolled in the district’s hybrid option this fall will look different from what they’re used to: desks are spaced 6 feet apart, passing periods will be staggered and paired with mindfulness activities, masks will be required in every building, hallway floors are covered with markers to help facilitate proper spacing and the like. 

Elementary and middle school students got to check out all of these changes earlier this week, during in-person family-teacher conferences that were spread out across the span of three days. At the high school level, ninth-graders came in to get acquainted with their new building ahead of day 1 of class, while older students met with their teachers online.

Sept. 3 marks the first official day back in the classroom, district-wide, for students assigned to Cohort 1. And those in Cohort 2 will follow suit this Friday. 

Principal Megan Blazek
Principal Megan Blazek
At Boeckman Middle School, Principal Megan Blazek spent time greeting families as they entered the building Monday. It was great to see students and teachers making the sorts of connections that happen best in person, she said, noting haircuts and summer recaps were two of the most popular topics of conversation. And students’ first stop — getting their school photo taken — gave the day a very familiar feel. “It feels really good to have some things that typically would happen at the start of the school year happen,” Blazek said. 

Afterward, they met up with their “tiger connections” teacher, a sort of homeroom teacher that they’ll be meeting with at the start and the end of every in-person learning day, as well as during their content period with that teacher. They’ll connect with this teacher during their remote learning days as well — two of which will involve new instruction, with Fridays being reserved as a flex day with a virtual check-in and time to complete work established earlier in the week. 

Roughly 16 percent of families opted to enroll in the district’s full-time distance-learning-only option this fall, says Superintendent Jason Berg. The remaining 5,900 families got split into the two cohorts that kept households together on the same schedule. 

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Today and tomorrow, students will spend the bulk of their first in-person day with peers in their “tiger connections” group, getting to know one another and learning about the new safety protocol. “The focus is really on what they can do and what their options are when they’re in the building, and how we can all be here safely,” Blazek said. 

Superintendent Jason Berg
Superintendent Jason Berg
This soft start to the school year gave school leaders an opportunity to test out and troubleshoot any remaining logistics, such as school transportation routes and connectivity for students learning from home. The face-to-face relationship building, though, ranks as a top priority for Berg as well. 

“There was a positive energy in our building today,” he said Monday afternoon. “If we can get kids in the buildings for two weeks, we’ll take that. If until MEA, we’ll take that. It’s all kind of a gift right now — so that if we do have to move to distance learning, we really know them well, so we can support them through that.”

‘Focusing on relationships first’

The hybrid school year won’t officially start until Sept. 8, in Hastings. But teachers have been meeting with students and families all week. Those in grades K-4 came in for pre-scheduled meetings at the start of the week, for a chance to meet their teacher and check out their classroom so they could get acquainted with the new set-up before meeting their peers.

For students needing special-education services, this in-person slot afforded parents and teachers time to sit down and review which services are being provided during in-person days and what options are available during remote-learning days. It’s these sorts of face-to-face orientation sessions that Kyle Latch, principal at Kennedy Elementary School, says sets everyone up for a more successful school year, compared to this past spring, no matter the school model.

Hastings school buses dropping off students on Monday.
Photo by Supt. Robert McDowell
Hastings school buses dropping off students on Monday.
At the secondary level, only those entering grades five and nine — two big transition years in the district — came in for a face-to-face orientation experience. Half of each class came in on Tuesday and the other half came in on Wednesday. “We have to make sure we’re focusing on relationships first, and creating connections and creating a situation where especially kids who are new or transitions have an opportunity to get into the buildings, meet people,” said Superintendent Robert McDowell Tuesday afternoon. 

Superintendent Robert McDowell
Superintendent Robert McDowell
Beginning next week, all students will have two days of remote learning each week, in addition to their two back-to-back days of in-person learning, split by a “flex day” every Wednesday.

Since the start of any school year centers around establishing expectations and routines, Bachman says, she’s focused on keeping the first official day back as traditional as possible. She and her colleagues have planned welcome back activities, picked out which books they’ll read to set expectations around behavior — which now includes sanitization, mask and social distancing — and dedicated time to practicing walking down the hallways.

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“We are planning pretty much the exact same things,” she said, noting the first week or so will involve sending home more paper and pencil work until all students get outfitted with a device that’ll support more Zoom sessions on their work-at-home days. 

In watching other hybrid districts pivot, last-minute, to distance learning formats to start the school year, Latch says he’s reassured by the success of the district-run summer child care program, which served about 100 children and never got derailed by a positive case of COVID-19. He’s also reassured by the commitment of his staff. 

“It’s been really small numbers, in Hastings, of teachers needing to be out of the classroom, or requesting furlough or leave,” he said. “That’s what’s allowed us to go forward with our plan.”