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What will school look like in the fall? Challenges are inevitable, educators say, but 'students are No. 1'

House Photography file photo

As testimony on distance learning continued Tuesday, equity and the physical and mental health of students remained top concerns, even as testifiers highlighted expected logistical difficulties of the upcoming school year.

The informational hearing was the last of three held by the House Education Policy Committee and the House Education Finance Division. It focused on the testimony of principals, school board members, and Department of Education representatives.

Previous hearings centered on the experiences of teachers, counselors, and other school professionals and students and parents.

Uncertainty remains regarding what school will look like in the fall – whether K-12 schools will fully reopen, if distance learning will continue, or if some sort of a hybrid will be introduced – meaning that school districts are trying to plan for all three scenarios.

“With each scenario there are implications that are both positive and negative. Essentially, there is no perfect solution,” said Astein Osei, superintendent of St. Louis Park Public Schools.

Planning now means that schools will potentially be able to pivot between models, if required to ensure the health of students and minimize the spread of COVID-19, said Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker.

Joint meeting of House Education Finance Division & House Education Policy Committee 6/30/20

Hybrid models could be implemented in a specific district, if a cluster of COVID-19 cases crops up, or metrics worsen in a particular area. And distance models — built off feedback to the districts’ experiences this spring — could be implemented if in-person learning again needed to be suspended altogether, she said.

But that uncertainty also makes it difficult for districts to start making decisions in preparation for the upcoming school year, testifiers said.

“We need to know where we’re going to start so that we can provide high-quality service for our students,” said Sabrina Williams, executive director of Excell Academy for Higher Learning, a charter school in Brooklyn Park. “Our students are No. 1.”

If schools reopen with social distancing protocols in place, or if a hybrid model is adopted, then ensuring safe transportation for students will pose a major concern for many districts.

Food service programs would also face difficulties — especially in regards to staffing — as schools might effectively need run two separate food programs, one for on-site students, and another for those distance-learning in the community, said Brenton Lexvold, food services director for Red Wing Public Schools.

Cafeterias would likely remain open for selection, with students eating in their classrooms, because there isn’t enough staff to deliver food to classrooms. But districts may still need to invest in new equipment, like barcode scanners, to minimize contact, or warmers and coolers to maintain food safety requirements, he said.

In both cases, there are significant expenses to school districts that aren’t made up for by existing federal coronavirus relief funds, testifiers said.

Schools may also have to contend with the costs of: personal protective equipment; additional cleaning products and sanitization needs; hot spots and technology; accommodations for staff with health concerns; and a possible increase in the number of substitute teachers needed, should instructors need to self-isolate or quarantine themselves to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said David Boone, board chair of Robbinsdale Area Schools.

Some schools have already had to lay off employees, while others are considering layoffs in the wake of decreased revenue from preschool and childcare programs, testifiers said.

Testifiers also agreed that — regardless of what model is adopted — more student support services, meaning additional staff, will be needed in the upcoming year.

“The trauma is real. The emotional exhaustion is real. And there’s going to be a lot said for healing as we think about the fall,” said Chreese Jones, principal of Global Arts Plus in St. Paul.

Several testifiers recommended that school districts be allowed to make decisions on reopening based on their students’ and communities’ specific circumstances. This includes allowing schools to resume normal operations and adapt as needed.

Tom Brenner, principal of Cloquet Middle School, said the rural nature of his district means there is no way to provide all students with the online access needed to make distance learning effective, even with hotspots.

“We just cannot make it equitable,” he said. “Some of our kids who need it the most are the ones who are getting left behind.”

If required to adopt a hybrid model in which only one-third of the school’s students can be in the brick-and-mortar building at a time, his district would not be best served by rotating three different groups of students through. Instead, it could consider full-time, on-site learning for students who don’t have access to the internet, or who need more services, while those who can effectively distance learn continue doing so.

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