As North Branch Area Public Schools prepare for the 2021-22 school year, the lessons the district learned from dealing with COVID-19 last year will influence the safety measures and protocols in place for the coming school year.

Superintendent Sara Paul discussed those lessons and also revealed the framework for a new strategic plan for the North Branch school system, as part of a school board meeting held Thursday, June 8.

Paul indicated that the school will begin the coming year at Level 1 on the district’s Safe Learning Continuum. Level 1 includes in-person learning in a “normal” school setting, with masks optional, reduced restrictions for transportation, and self-monitoring for symptoms.

“We are not out of COVID-19 – we’re not acting as if COVID-19 doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “But we are operating with an in-person model.”

The entire Safe Learning Continuum can be viewed online at https://mn02210257.schoolwires.net/Page/441.

Paul said the district was guided by the value of flexibility and choice for its families.

“We wanted families to have the option of deciding what was best for their students,” she said. “That’s not something that’s going to go away; it’s going to remain a priority as we move forward.”

The district’s plan focused on protocols that will allow students, teachers and staff to remain safe but meet in school for five days a week.

“Providing the predictability of a daily schedule, instructional model and learning environment, I don’t think we had any idea what that meant until we heard about it from our families,” Paul said. “It keeps their lives whole. So when we make decisions about next year, scheduling in that way is helpful for families.

“Our students said, ‘We want to be here,’ and I appreciate how that shared value of wanting to be in school overrode the inconveniences that came with it.”

The state required that schools document the steps that were taken to battle COVID-19 during the past school year, then use the information that it gleaned from that document to put together a plan for the coming school year.

The entire report, which is part of a request for Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, can be read online at https://mn02210257.schoolwires.net/Page/461.

Board Chair Tim McMillan asked when the district will determine the number of students who will use the distance learning model.

“We’re tracking those weekly, and we’re already adjusting to those numbers,” Paul said. “Right now we see a number of families who say they feel confident moving back to the in-person learning model.

“It’s hard to predict with our DLA numbers. And because we’ve increased the number of [Postsecondary Enrollment Options], we’ve seen a decrease in the number of students who leave the high school to go off campus.”

McMillan also asked about the potential to increase access to the internet for students.

“That is part of our partnership with the city: to provide increased access with the tower that just went in,” said David Treichel, the district’s director of teaching and learning. “And our technology is working to provide access points, so that whenever there is a child without internet access, that they would gain access.”

Strategy update revealed

Paul enthusiastically presented an update on strategic planning that has taken place in the school district over the past few months, as well as determining how the school has fared in terms of reaching goals that were set by a strategic plan that has been in place over the past six years.

“There are commitments we have made through current contracts and things we have to honor because of state statutes,” she said. “Those are the parameters we have to be aware of, but there is space for creative thinking. That’s what we’re trying to inspire with our families, students, staff and leadership team.”

Progress on the strategic plan has taken place during a school board retreat, a meeting of the school’s World Best Workforce Advisory Committee, and community engagement meetings.

Paul noted that the current strategic plan for the district, which includes a vision statement and mission statement that the district embraces, does not include core values.

“Core values exist in an organization whether you state them out loud or not – and that’s a quote from someone from our World’s Best Workforce committee,” she said. “If we want to take our school district to the next level, what are the behaviors and actions that will take us there? Those are our core values.”

Paul also talked about the strategic direction for the plan, as well as the governance of the district and the next steps for the strategic plan. There will be another school board retreat in August, and other leadership teams also will meet that month.

“I want to acknowledge that, very clearly, there has been an exceptional amount of work put in to draw out a variety of different voices,” board member Heather Osagiede said. “That is incredibly challenging, and it is time consuming, and that has not necessarily been the predominant culture.

“Building trust and respectfully listening – and I would guess it often starts with a litany of complaints before it gets back around to solving the issues – clearly that work is being done. It is essential to get everyone to buy in, and that only happens if people feel they have contributed and been involved.”

Substitute teacher pay will rise

The North Branch school board also approved an increase in pay for substitute teachers for the district. Their pay will increase from $130 to $154 for a full day as a sub, and rise from $65 to $72.50 for a half-day.

“We value our substitute teachers, and we need them,” said Todd Tetzlaff, the district’s director of financial and human resources. “This, we believe, will help us remain competitive. We will be at or near the top of the [pay rate] for schools in our area, and we believe it’s important to do that. …

“There’s a statewide – really, nationwide – shortage of substitute teachers, and we continue to reach out and recruit substitute teachers. It is an area of need for us.”

Tetzlaff said this would be the first increase in the rate of pay for substitute teachers in roughly five years.

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