District 728 continues to plan for multiple scenarios while waiting for further direction from state leaders

by Jim Boyle

Editor

Vision Transportation in Elk River is preparing for the 2020-21 school year, but what it will look like is not exactly clear.

Transportation officials are preparing for a variety of scenarios, but they — like many — remain in a wait-and-see mode. Meanwhile, they are looking to hire more drivers with job fairs, including one coming up from 2-5 p.m. on July 22, and other efforts to attract qualified candidates that go on all year long across the industry.

“Because we don’t know what the school year will be like, we can’t say what it will look like here,” said Lee Olson, the manager of Vision Transportation’s Elk River location.

Last year, Olson said Vision used a fleet of about 140 buses plus vans to transport students to schools in Elk River, Zimmerman, Otsego, Rogers and Big Lake. Those efforts halted in the middle of March when the state ordered distance learning with the emergency orders. Gov. Tim Walz had turned the dials allowing a multitude of businesses to reopen under certain conditions.

Restaurants opened for outdoor dining first, and later to capacity limits on the inside of their establishments.

Decisions are coming soon on K-12 schools. What if social distancing is required on buses, and students must be separated like restaurant patrons are now with unused tables positioned between tables that are available for use? That in and of itself could effect how many students can be at school at once.

That was one of the points Superintendent Dan Bittman tried to convey at a meeting of the Elk River Area School Board on July 13. He provided members of the board an update on latest back-to-school planning in the face of a pandemic with endless possibilities on how instruction will be delivered come Sept. 8 in District 728.

Schools across the state have been asked to prepare for everything from a return to distance learning to having kids back at their schools for face-to-face learning and a hybrid model to provide a mix of the two. This appears to be the most likely scenario after last spring’s state rollout of distance learning for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade.

Some students struggled with connectivity, while others struggled with the different style of instruction. Others had no connectivity issues and flourished. The vast majority adjusted and completed the year, including a senior class that became a focal point in the communities of District 728.

“As you mentioned, spring was like no other,” Bittman said to board members. “I guarantee fall will be like no other also.”

Bittman said here in the ISD 728 communities of Elk River, Otsego, Zimmerman and Rogers, the priorities are student achievement, school climate and culture, district staff, communication and community engagement. Direction for all Minnesota school districts will be provided and communicated by Gov. Walz later this month.

District 728 officials have created an organizational structure that consists of Bittman’s cabinet to provide a guiding force and committees specifically focused on E-5, middle school, high school, and student support services (i.e. special education) as well as operational teams representing transportation, health and safety, food services, custodial services, technology, human resources, special education, and English Language Learning / ADSIS.

Each area is covered by an overarching Public Health umbrella and will ultimately be brought to the School Board, Bittman said.

“We have hundreds of people who are involved in this planning process, and it will continue,” Bittman stressed.

The hybrid instructional method includes a variety of models based on factors such as but not limited to the availability of workers, age or level of students, student need, and transportation availability. This model includes a mixture of distance learning through technology from home and direct instruction on site.

“The hybrid model from a Department of Health and Department of Education standpoint is not meant to be an answer; it is meant to be a bridge between the all-or-nothing models,” Bittman said. “It is not an ideal, something that will get students back to face-to-face with everything back to normal or to being off-site in a distant-learning-type, based on the science.”

Something like transportation could have a big impact on the type of hybrid model selected.

“If the Department of Health and the Department of Education determines only a certain number of students can ride on a bus, that will dictate how many students are served on a daily basis,” Bittman noted.

Similarly, if a significant number of bus drivers have underlying conditions and there are not enough bus drivers to drive buses, that will have an impact on how many kids will be bused to school.

“As much as we prioritize and focus on our students, those types of factors will have an impact on our different models. I believe that based on the guidance we will receive at the end of the month there will be some level of expectation for fluidity based on different schools within the school district. I believe the hope and expectation from the governor, commissioner of education and the Department of Health and Education will be to be making decisions that are unique to various communities and schools ... based on the levels of risk and exposure.”

Olson said Vision Transportation has had a “minuscule” number of drivers say they would be uncomfortable coming back. He said they have a good many drivers who are motivated to come back this fall.

“We’re hoping for the best for the entire community,” Olson said.

Bittman said some schools could be allowed to operate on a traditional model and others might not be allowed to do that.

“That will be based on science,” Bittman said. “I do not believe it will be ‘one size fits all’; however, that decision will be made by the governor and the commissioners.”

The school district will get direction from the state no later than July 31, possibly sooner.

Bittman’s cabinet members were meeting this past week to refine parameters and work with the executive leadership team to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything and are consistent with state guidelines.

“Our expectation is to have proposals completed no later than Aug. 14,” Bittman said. “The first day of school will be Sept. 8, so we will still have several weeks before then.”

Bittman has had the benefit of serving as president-elect of the state association of superintendents and had a seat at the table on July 9 with state officials to talk about their potential guidance. He’s also on an executive board that works with people throughout the state and has been in on meetings with as many as 70 superintendents at once.

Bittman stated in literature prepared for the board the District 728 Health Services will provide guidance related to such things as social distancing, screening practices, personal protective equipment, and general hygiene, as well as protocols for student and staff demonstrating COVID-19 symptoms.

“Department of Health guidelines will be followed,” Bittman stated in his memo.

Assistance and plans will be implemented for medically fragile students and staff, and/or those with special health care needs.

Vaccination requirements will be upheld.

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