The Columbia Heights School District plans to start the school year using distance learning combined with limited in-person instruction.

Under this “modified hybrid” model, all students will start the year with distance learning using the district’s “Heights from Home” program, according to Superintendent Zena Stenvik, who stepped into the district’s top role this summer.

After a couple weeks, the district “will be able to bring in small groups of identified students who would really benefit from that face-to-face support,” Stenvik said.

This modified hybrid approach is considered phase 2 of a four-phase system that will allow the district to respond to local COVID-19 infection rates based on direction the state provided July 30.

If the number of new cases rises, the district could switch to phase 1, which would include only distance learning for all students. On the other hand, if the situation improves, the schools could move to phase 3, which is a full hybrid schedule that allows all students to attend in-person classes some days of the week and to learn from home other days. Phase 4 would involve all students coming to in-person classes full time.

Although the district can switch to a lower phase at any time if the situation calls for it, school leaders say they want to provide some predictability and plan not to move to a higher phase mid-quarter.

“We have committed to our school board that we would analyze on a quarterly basis,” Stenvik said. In other words, mid-November is the soonest school would upgrade from a modified hybrid to a full hybrid schedule.

Families also choose to have their students enroll full time in distance learning, if they prefer.

Stenvik said the district learned a lot from its experience with distance learning in the spring and that Heights from Home is its “new, more robust, improved version of distance learning.” It focuses more on live lessons from teachers, according to Stenvik.

“It’s not parents sitting at home with packets,” she said.

She also said the district has been able to provide the technology students need to learn remotely. Thanks to a technology levy the community approved in 2014, the district already had Chromebooks for all students in upper grades, and it used federal coronavirus relief funds to purchase additional Chromebooks and wireless internet hot spots.

The district is also providing all supplies for activities in advance, be it art supplies, science kits or other items.

“We’re really approaching this with equity in mind,” Stenvik said.

Despite the district’s efforts, Stenvik knows the new approach comes with challenges for everyone.

“One of the things that weighs heavy on me are families with young children,” she said, because younger learners often can’t be as independent as high school students.

And there are logistical challenges for families as well.

“I really think a lot about how our families are going to manage child care and school in this hybrid approach,” she said. “I know it’s a struggle.”

According to Stenvik, the district’s educators look forward to returning to in-person learning when it’s safe. In the meantime, they’re focusing on the “health and safety and wellbeing of students and family and staff, and balancing that out with our mission of educating each and every child,” she said.


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