by Mike Knaak
Sartell-St. Stephen school leaders are making plans now on how to end the school year with distance learning in place and accommodate traditional events jeopardized by stay-at-home orders.
While administrators consider a number of distance learning-related issues, “graduation is by far the biggest one,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said.
To come up with a plan on how to replace the traditional ceremony, the district sent surveys to senior students and parents and High School Principal Brenda Steve is meeting with students to come up with a plan, Schwiebert said.
Schwiebert hosted a virtual meeting on Zoom, a video conferencing platform, to hear from parents this week.
When the school board meets May 6, school leaders hope to have a plan to serve the students and parents but also to meet the state’s social distancing rules for schools.
Gov. Tim Walz ordered all schools to continue distance learning through the end of the school year and that order included all school-related activities such as prom, awards programs and graduation ceremonies. The Minnesota State High School League also canceled the entire spring season for sports and other activities, including tournaments.
“Our biggest group to worry about are the seniors,” Schwiebert said. “They are losing their last year in high school. We need to make sure we can do as much as we can for that group.”
A prom in May, he said, doesn’t meet social distancing rules now in place. A school-sponsored prom is not in the works, but maybe parents can arrange something later in the summer.
A number of graduation ideas have been floated including moving the event back a month, conducting a virtual ceremony or organizing some sort of drive-thru/drive up event with each car driving forward when it’s that senior’s turn.
Under the state’s plan for easing coronavirus restrictions, “I don’t think we’ll be able to put 3,000 people in a gym,” Schwiebert said.
At the April 20 school board meeting, board member Pam Raden described the situation as “gut-wrenching. What people want to hear is we’re trying to come up with creative ideas.”
Classes will not meet Friday, May 1, and Monday, May 4, while staff meets to focus on how to improve distance learning for the final weeks of school.
Discussions will probably focus on how well distance learning is serving special needs and free- and reduced-lunch students, the superintendent said.
“Are we making sure students are getting the same kind of education as if we didn’t have distance learning?” Schwiebert said.
When distance learning kicked in a month ago, some students had trouble connecting to the internet but Schwiebert said most of those problems have been resolved. Special education is working well, he said.
“Distance-learning makes me worry about the social and emotional aspect of kids staying isolated,” Schwiebert said.
As for the canceling of spring activities, “It’s just a loss that all those kids are feeling and there is no way to make it up,” he said. “It’s tremendously unfair.”
As this school year ends, school leaders are looking ahead to the fall when the last phase of the district’s multi-year building reconfiguration plan rolls out.
The current middle school will be renamed Riverview Intermediate School and serve grades three to five. Over the hill on Seventh Street, students in grades six through eight will move into the remodeled former high school. Instead of two elementary schools, Oak Ridge will be home to the district’s PreK through kindergarten students and Pine Meadow will serve first- and second-graders.
Minor remodeling planned at Riverview has started now instead of waiting until the end of the school year, giving construction crews more time on that project. Because of the pandemic shutdown at some factories, there’s a concern that manufactured products might not arrive as scheduled.
“I’d rather be back in school but if we can’t be back in school at least we can make the work easier,” Schwiebert said.
New bus routes for kindergarten students are being developed and those should be distributed in June.