Uncertainty clouds plans for new school year

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by Mike Knaak


Sartell-St. Stephen school board members discussed at a June 3 work session how to plan for what school will look like in fall with so many unknowns about the coronavirus and how public health concerns will change in the next three months.

The school year ended with distance learning for all students but how students return to classes will depend on Minnesota Department of Education guidance, which is not expected until the end of July.

“Nobody has a crystal ball,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said.

With so much uncertainty, board members debated whether detailed planning should take place now only to have it overturned by state guidelines later in the summer.

“We want our kids back in school, but we don’t know what that is going to look like. There may be some modifications,” board member Pam Raden said.

Much like the “dial” concept Gov. Tim Walz has used to describe the easing of restrictions, schools have to plan for a range of possibilities from continued distance learning to a return to buildings with some degree of social distancing.

“We need to have a dial, not a switch,” board member Patrick Marushin said. “We need to look at ways to totally distance, totally the way it was a year ago and then have some steps in between. We need to have more than one setting on the dial for social distancing. Spring was either on or off.”

After some discussion, the board decided to give teachers, staff and students a time to recover from the school year just ended and then gather groups to look at high-level issues during July. Details would be worked out after the expected state guidance in late July or early August. The board discussed the possibility of conducting listening sessions with parents and other interested groups, much like the sessions before last year’s levy vote.

The board settled on four focus areas for future discussion: instruction, operations, communication, resources.

Instructional brainstorming includes how to organize classrooms for different levels of social distancing, class size and providing classroom materials. Operational discussions cover a range of issues from busing to food service and technology. Communication includes involving teachers, staff and parents in the plan and then clearly explaining it. Resources would focus on budget issues and state funding. The state has gone from a $1.5-billion surplus to at least a $2.5-billion deficit because of unexpected coronavirus expenses, a $4 billion turnaround in 10 weeks.

Board members generally agreed that creating detailed plans and options before hearing state guidance would result in disappointment and anxiety if some of that planning had to be abandoned, as happened with graduation. Senior High School leaders and students planned alternative graduation and other year-end events, only to have those ideas blocked when the Department of Education issued rules for those events in mid May.

In addition to waiting for state rules, what school might look like could be affected by other circumstances such as a second wave, or resurgence of infections during the fall, and by how willing teachers and staff would be to return to buildings. With continued health concerns, some parents might want to keep their students at home.

The board’s next regular meeting is 5 p.m. Monday, June 15 at the District Service Center, 212 Third Ave. N. Because of social distancing, the board has been conducting business via video conference.

Author: Mike Knaak

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