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Students at Linwood Elementary School greet teachers on the first day of classes on Sept. 3, 2019. Forest Lake Area School District Superintendent Steve Massey is calling for in-person learning to begin this fall with mandated masks amidst the pandemic. File photo

As the expected announcement by the Minnesota Department of Education on how districts should approach the new school year nears, area school officials have been developing plans for distance learning, in-person learning, a hybrid of distance and in-person learning, or a mixture of all three during the school year.

“The task is daunting, and it is challenging all of us in ways that we probably have never been challenged before. It is an inordinate amount of time and energy,” Superintendent Steve Massey said. “It’s exhausting, and at the same time, the task is enormous, and that in of itself is energizing, because we know we need to get it right.”

A task force of 30 people — including teachers, principals, parents, students, school board members, and administrators — has been working through the 100-page document of guidelines set forth by MDE earlier this year.

Safety for both students and staff is paramount in how they are approaching the modeling for in-person and hybrid school for this year, he said.

“We’re not sure what the guidance is going to be. We want to be prepared once we get that to give an indication of where we’re at as a district. We won’t have all the answers to all the questions, but we want to be able to come out of that guidance this week or early next week with ‘Here’s our plan,’” Massey said.

Fall school

One thing that will look different for distance learning, should that be implemented, is the expectation that students and teachers are connecting each day, compared to this past spring’s distance learning situation, which didn’t have that requirement.

Planning for these scenarios has been challenging, but the hybrid model has been particularly difficult.

“Hybrid is the most challenging, because it has a lot of moving parts. In person we have a lot of guidelines around how kids interact around social distancing and around those pieces, but we know how to do in-person learning,” Massey said.

Under that hybrid model, 50% of students would attend in-person classes on a rotating basis throughout the week. The implications of such would mean a change and addition to what teachers do in teaching their classes, as they prepare lessons for in-person learning and distance learning. Though Massey wouldn’t quantify how much more work that is, he did say it was “different” work, and that the expectation is that teachers would continue to teach all classes, both online and in-person. In addition, the school district would continue running its typical bus routes, but would have fewer students on the bus due to the 50% in-person ratio.

The planning comes with enormous pressure, said Massey, but a challenge he readily accepts.

“What’s energizing is we’ve been given an enormous task, and putting that together is not an exercise in theory or futility, it’s an exercise in ‘We best get this right.’ We’re serving kids in their learning year, which is essential, and we need to hit a home run. We have to get this right. That challenge is energizing and the work is energizing from the standpoint of needing to put our pieces together that works for kids and families and our teachers and our staff.”

Superintendent calls for in-person learning, statewide mask mandate

A recent poll by MDE showed that roughly two-thirds of parents surveyed indicated they’d like their children in an in-person school situation, and that is what Massey is hoping for, as well, which he said as he addressed the school board during its meeting on Thursday, July 16.

“It’ll be a challenge, but it’s what’s best for kids is to be back in the classroom. Given what we know today, I think that’s an option we have, and I think our planning team and board would be wise to consider fully opening, provided we can do that in a safe way and that’s the guidance we get from the state,” Massey said.

Massey also said during the board meeting that he requested a mask mandate to MDE Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker during a phone conversation. He said a statewide mask mandate given by Gov. Tim Walz would significantly ease health and safety concerns regarding the transmission of the virus among parents, students, and staff, and it would help the district be able to enforce such a rule, as they will at minimum be strongly encouraging masks to be worn during the school year.

“We’re just in a really tough spot as a district,” Massey said. “We just lose so much leverage with a student whose parents say, ‘No, we’re not wearing masks and you can’t make me.’ Do we go down the path of enforcing it when it’s not a state mandate? On the flip side, what happens if they refuse? Are we prepared to discipline a student who doesn’t? I don’t want to go down that road, and I don’t think anybody does; but if they’re required, then we’re just in a much better leverage position to expect that they be worn. … Masks have become the political ball, here, unfortunately, so if it could just be declared, I could get out of the politics of it, and then it just is what it is.”

Massey addressed concerns of board member Rob Raphael regarding staff concerns over their health and working environments, noting that the Forest Lake Education Association is working with teachers about those concerns and that those are being worked on as much as possible while the district waits for guidance from MDE.

“Once we know the model, we’ll be able to communicate with state what measures will be in place, which is just as critical for them as for the safety of their students. We know there’s a great deal of concern for our staff. There is concern, and that speaks to my point around face masks as one of the measures around protection and safety,” Massey said.

He did add that the guidance from CDC and employment rules have documentation that indicate a note from that employee’s health professional would be needed on how to proceed with an employee who is apprehensive about coming into work.

“It’s not an option of ‘I want to come to work or don’t want to come to work,’” Massey said. “It’s ‘Can or can’t I based on my medical condition.’”

Massey noted that with the uncertainty of the pandemic, there’s the possibility of needing to utilize different models at different times, and that administration, students and parents need to be prepared to shift from one model to another.

“We’re of the mindset that having kids in front of teachers as much as possible is the best way to go, but the level of spread and outbreak might determine (if) we have different schools on different plans during school year,” Massey said.

Board Member Kate Luthner asked if distance learning would be available to kids who want that option full-time, and Massey indicated that while that’s not been decided yet, that would be discussed at a future planning meeting and will be determined “based on our ability to deliver that, but it’s a fair question, and something we need to consider.”

The Minnesota Department of Education is expected to make an announcement by July 27 regarding how school districts should proceed with planning for the fall.

Hannah Davis is the Area Editor at the Forest Lake Times. You can contact her at hannah.davis@ecm-inc.com or (763)233-0709

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