By Jordan Gerard

Editor, The Caledonia Argus

In a year that presented changes and new learning scenarios, the Houston School Board discussed and will further discuss a half day change to future school year calendars. 

At the regular meeting on Thursday, Jan. 21, Superintendent Krin Abraham presented the 2021-22 calendar to the board, which was termed as the “loose” calendar. That means more breaks in the year, and the last day of school will be June 8, 2022. This school year is a “tight” calendar and the last day of school will be June 1, 2021. 

Due to a state executive order set during the pandemic, teachers needed 30 minutes of planning time each day. That resulted in half days of school on Wednesdays, and Abraham said those days “really have been incredibly beneficial.” She added that she’d like some type of early out on Wednesdays for next year so teachers can have that planning time. Other days in the week were not affected.

“It’s something that the teachers found the power of having that collaborative time within the school day,” Abraham continued, “and the high school staff have really been using it and sharing, and there’s some really great stuff happening in both buildings now.” 

Board member Mimi Carlson said she wasn’t too keen on voting for that big of a change without doing some research and asking kids first. She added from a parent perspective, “it’s a royal pain to not have it every day.” She also asked if it was more valuable for the kids. 

Board chair Tom Stilin noted including half days in the master agreement for future years would be a different discussion from just doing it for the 2021-22 school year. 

Contractually, there are seven half days that happen traditionally on Wednesdays each year for mid-quarter, Q-comp, curriculum and other school needs. Abraham re-iterated the board think about where those half days are scheduled in the calendar. 

The board’s next meeting on Feb. 4 is the latest decision possible in order to communicate the possible change to parents. The board is expected to approve the 2021-22 calendar.

COVID numbers

Abraham presented recent COVID-19 case numbers for the school district area. She said there was a bump in the county after the holiday break. On Thursday, Jan. 21 the case rate for Houston County was 83.05 (per 10,000)according to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) website. 

Abraham said though the county wide numbers were high, the micro data needs to be looked at first. The zip code area had only four new cases, continuing a weekly trend of single digit increases. Since that number was low, the district can stay with in-person learning. Three elementary students, two high school students and two staff members were also in quarantine. 

The school did receive face shields, but they cannot hand them out until a piece of foam is secured to the shield. That brings them into compliance. Anyone with a latex allergy should also not wear the shield. 

Abraham announced the state vaccine pilot program announced by Gov. Tim Walz “was up and running, kind of.” Houston School District was alloted five vaccines that will be given at Willow Creek Middle School in Rochester. Staff was prioritized by grade, interaction with students, time spent in close contact with students, age and if they had comorbidities (disclosed at the employee’s own discretion). 

It was unclear how those numbers were determined, since La Crescent also got five vaccines, Caledonia got four and Spring Grove got three. It was also unclear if the district would receive more or less vaccines next week. 

In her board notes, Abraham noted that some staff are getting faster vaccinations by going to their public health department. She also noted that conflicting information from MDH and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) was overwhelming. 

The saliva test was available for school staff who wanted to get tested. The test was available to staff only, and families should help schools by using statewide testing sites if they think they were exposed to COVID-19. 

Finally, the pandemic EBT card is available for families. Those who apply by Feb. 28 will be eligible for benefits back to September 2020. The card is similar to a debit card and allows families to buy food at a grocery store. Cards are delivered directly to families. 

Enrollment

Local enrollment projections for fiscal year 2021 through 2023 were holding steady, according to Gwen Rostad, director of finance. 

Online enrollment for the Minnesota Virtual Academy (MNVA) was hard to predict. A large increase due to COVID was recorded, from an enrollment of 1,646 students in 2020, to 2,646 students in 2021. Rostad stated it would be hard to predict if students return to their resident districts once COVID is controlled or if they stayed with the virtual academy. 

Abraham mentioned some students might choose to stay, as the online school has done a lot with clubs, engagement and community and even though it’s distance learning, they have a sense of belonging in school. 

Principal reports

MNVA principal Angela Specketer echoed Abraham’s thoughts on virtual academy enrollment and said they were working hard to ensure a sense of community and also focusing on academics. 

The school is beginning its re-registration process for the coming year. Specketer said while each student’s intent to return to MNVA or not must be done during this window, it’s not the only time where focus is on retaining students. 

MNVA has increased student activities and clubs (a total of 24 across all grade levels) and also rolled out a more robust training program for new teachers. 

What’s more, Specketer said MNVA is exploring the option of bringing back more Advanced Placement (AP) classes and Destinations Career Academy (DCA). The DCA classes combine traditional high school academics with industry-relevant, career-focused electives. Abraham added those classes are filling up fast. 

Elementary Principal Richard Bartz said the return to school went smoothly and staff, students and parents were glad to be back. Winter testing was wrapping up and the Positive Behaviorial Interventions and Supports (PBIS) team was working on a spring event for the Blue Ribbon School award. Kevin Jumbeck was working on a display sign for the school. 

High School Principal Michael Mangen said it was good to see everyone in person. Houston Public Schools celebrated the life of 16-year-old Jared Larson, who passed away last Friday, Jan. 15. Many students attended the visitation and were also able to watch the service together in the gym. 

“To see all of the students together, they mourned together and celebrated Jared,” Mangen said. “We have an awesome community in Houston.”

Mangen thanked staff, teachers and parents for meeting students’ needs and the buzz in the halls and classrooms was a “breath of fresh air.” He also highlighted positives that came out of distance learning, such as innovative engagement strategies for students. 

Finally, Mangen and a few students were able to see Caledonia High School’s PAES Lab, a Practical Assessment Exploration System that determines student interest in five different career areas. PAES is a Hiawatha Valley Education District (HVED) program and has a sister site in Kellogg, Minnesota. 

Other news

Abraham noted if the district has snow days in the future, the first one will be a traditional snow day. Any snow days after that will be an eLearning day. 

The board approved a second reading of several policies. The board also noted Jan. 25-31 was Paraprofessional Recognition Week. 

Next meeting

The next meeting will be held Feb. 4, at 6 p.m. in the library at the high school.

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