by Jim Boyle
Elk River Area Superintendent Dan Bittman called a virtual meeting of community partners on Friday, March 20 to discuss various responses, challenges and opportunities in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Another was planned for Friday, March 27.
Elected officials from cities, counties and townships as well their administrators and others from the business and faith community were on the video conference that used the services of Zoom.
Bittman explained the district’s decision to close school immediately after Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement to temporarily close schools.
“We knew there was absolutely no way we could meet the social distancing guidelines from the Minnesota Department of Health if we had 14,000 kids in our schools,” Bittman said. “If it was serious the shut the entire state down, we knew we couldn’t bring kids in on that Monday and Tuesday.
“We recognize that was a hardship for some people trying to find child care as it was for us.”
He proudly noted 48 hours later the district was serving upwards of 3,000 meals a day to children across the school district for every child in the district under the age of 18. That number topped 5,000 in the second week of service.
Bittman cautioned that those dollars being used have not been made billable by the state, and they are coming from general budget.
“That is an unfunded mandate,” he said. “We felt that was important to make sure our kids and families did not worry about that.”
Bittman said the district is looking at expanding those services in the future, especially in areas of high concentrations of poverty.
In addition to that he said the district is providing childcare throughout the district.
“It is the district intent and commitment to find as many spaces for child care that are needed,” Bittman said. “That includes families of medical emergency employees, and we expanded it to all ISD 728 employees and others like the kids of parents who work at grocery stores.”
Bittman said the district’s website is a hub for many, and the district has between 2,100 and 2,200 people preparing for school on March 30.
“Our folks are working. They’re working from home,” he said.
“We have the technology and support to do that. They will be ready to deliver meaningful instruction on (Monday, March 30).”
District officials want to make sure people can work and get paid.
“We also are working with contractors and vendors to see if we can get some of our projects done while we don’t have 14,000 students in our buildings,” Bittman said.
“We’re trying to keep people working.”
Bittman also opened the video conferencing session up for elected officials, administrators and others to share what they had going on and ways they could support one another.
He talked about the importance of not relying on rumors and what people see on Facebook and social media.
Bittman fielded lots of questions about how cities, the counties and non-profits might help, and many of the efforts that are already going on with community groups and nonprofits were shared.
Bittman shared how the district is making people aware of resources in the community.
“We’re telling them of nonprofits and letting them know if they don’t find what they need, come back to us and we will continue to make sure you have the support you need,” he said.
Ideas were shared how clinics like Allina, North Memorial, Fairview and RiverWay could be assisted, who was offering curbside food and other free breakfast and lunch opportunities.
Once distance learning starts, the school district will look for ways to get wireless to people in neighborhoods with high levels of poverty. In addition to some cable providers helping, the idea of running a bus with Wi-Fi out to certain neighborhoods was discussed.
Every family has been set up with at least one computer.
“Our School Board has set us up for success about equal access and opportunity aligned with our with our strategic plan,” Bittman said. “We’ve been humbled by work of staff and community.”
After more discussion, Elk River City Council Member Jennifer Wagner asked if there was anything the school district needed from municipalities.
“You guys have been amazing partners,” Bittman said. “Your city administrators, mayors and executives work so closely with me. I am just grateful we can continue to support one another. It’s helpful to hear from you how we can better support each other. Continue to provide information about what you’re hearing, and the needs you’ve experienced in you community. And support your execs and administrators as we come up with creative solutions.”
Bittman said he has challenged his team to think outside the box, and to really push the limits.
“This challenge gives us an opportunity to be creative,” he said. “If you ever wondered what life would be like without schools, this gives us an opportunity to see that.”
Elk River Area School Board Chairman Shane Steinbrecher thanked everybody for coming together.
“We have look out for each other,” he said. “Let’s keep these meetings going.”