back to school

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

Area charters still working out details

If all case numbers stay the same, Forest Lake Area Schools will begin the 2020-2021 school year on Sept. 8 with a fully in-person model for students up through sixth grade (including early childhood programs), and a hybrid model for students grades 7-12, after the school board passed the motion during its special meeting on Thursday, July 30. Under a hybrid model, half of the student body would attend in-person learning while the other half would attend distance learning, and would alternate days of each.  An option for full distance learning would be made available to all students, which was a requirement under Gov. Tim Walz’s Safe Learning Plan, which he announced during a press conference on Thursday, July 30 with officials from the Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Health. The motion did also include the ability to adjust the opening plan with guidance from the MDH. The Minnesota State High School League is expected to make an announcement regarding fall sports on Aug. 3.

Adaptable plans

Under the Safe Learning Plan, the MDH and each school district will continue to monitor case numbers in the county or counties which the school district serves and determine any action of change based on those numbers. The Forest Lake Area School District serves portions of Anoka, Chisago and Washington Counties. 

MDE’s guidelines offered an equation of total number of positive cases in a 14-day period divided by the population of 10,0000 within the respective community that will help determine which learning model districts should implement. For zero to nine cases, in-person learning would be permitted for all students; 10-19 cases, in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid for grades 7-12; 20-29 cases, hybrid for all grade levels; 30-49, hybrid for elementary students and full distance learning for 7-12; and 50 cases or more, distance learning for all. 

With the recent two-week period data ending on July 18, Anoka sits at 15.54 cases, Chisago at 5.85, and Washington at 14.84, which puts the Forest Lake School District in the 10-19 parameter. 

Board member Alex Keto addressed his concern with how the numbers work for the district's localized area, since it is in three counties and the majority of the district’s students are in Washington County, the state’s fifth-largest populated county in Minnesota which covers 485 square miles. 

“That’s where the response came in of consultation with MDH, and we have direct access to those who know that data. If the Washington County metric spikes, yet doesn’t seem to reflect the Forest Lake area and our school population, they’d evaluate that on a case-by-case, situation-by-situation basis,” said Superintendent Steve Massey.

Childcare programs like SAC and Sonic before and after school care will remain the same as prior years on a fee-basis.

Staff and student safety

On Wednesday, July 22, Walz announced a mandate requiring the use of masks indoors. That will extend to any school district building during the school year. In recognition of concerns over equity, the MDE announced that all students will be provided with one cloth mask. In addition, the state will be providing three disposable masks per student or staff member for those who forget to bring theirs.

Face shields will also be provided for teachers and students who need to see mouths or facial expressions.

Keeping the buildings and buses clean will also be a priority for the district, said Massey. Each school bus will be sprayed down after each route with a cleaning solution that kills germs within two minutes of contact. There will also be nightly disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces within the buildings with the same solution.

Other safety measures include the closure of all water fountains, though water bottle fill stations will remain available; removing excess furniture to create physical distancing space as allowed; the addition of plexiglass shields for building office assistants; and the placement of hand sanitizer in each classroom and frequented areas.

Massey also noted that, following the district’s voter-approved bond in 2015, the district upgraded its HVAC system in each of its buildings. The current HVAC system changes out each room’s air three times per hour with fresh outside air.

“That is a big deal with enhancing the safety of our students,” Massey said.

“[I am] thankful our bond came through when it did, because there’d be no way to rush it. So thank you to the community,” Luther said.

Grading and attendance

Following the implementation of distance learning at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, students were allowed by the district to change to a pass/no-pass option instead of a letter grade. That option will be no more, as the current plan maintains the typical grading systems for all grades “in order to provide consistency,” Massey said.

Assuming a distance learning or hybrid model, attendance will be taken daily based on evidence of engagement in the learning activities. 

Meals, recess, and music

While the district is still working on the finer details of the distribution of meals and how recess will be implemented, so far the guidance is a grab-and-go style meal for both breakfast and lunch. 

For elementary students, recess time will likely be done by classroom.

“It just sounds awful to have to say that, but it’s just the situation we’re in,” Massey said. 

Considerations are also being made for how to best hold specialized classes like music and physical education.

Special education and internet issues

Board member Kate Luthner inquired about how students with an individualized education program or students with poor internet connectivity will best be served. Under a hybrid model, if a student with an IEP is recommended by their team that they need in-person learning each day, that student would be accommodated.

“Many kids need supports around their learning, whether it’s in-person or distance, and we’ll make that determination on a case-by-case basis,” Massey said.

A similar sentiment goes for those who struggle with connectivity. 

“That is a challenge,” Massey said. Each student grades 7-12 will have a device, but internet connectivity can be challenging in the rural areas of the district. 

“We will work side by side with families to explore all options..and do our best to support those families,” Massey said. 

Board member Rob Raphael said, “I hope the staff understands, as a board, we know this is a lot of work. It’s a big deal and it’s going to be tough, and people are going to have to rise up to it. I want to go into it knowing that that’s going to be the case, and as a board, we’ll do whatever we can to support that and acknowledge it.”

“This is almost a dream come true. I know a lot of people are annoyed that it took all summer, but I think there’s greater value to the goalposts that are given based in science,” Luthner said.

Area charter schools still working out details

Following the governor’s announcement and the Forest Lake Area School District’s special meeting, administration for Lakes International Language Academy and North Lakes Academy began crafting their reopening plan. This is in great part due to the fact both schools utilize the school district’s busing system as well as watching case numbers.

On Friday, July 31, the Lakes International Language Academy School Board voted to open the school with a fully hybrid model at both the elementary and secondary grades. 

In an email to parents, LILA Executive Director Shannon Peterson said, “Knowing cases are on the rise, we feel it is prudent to move forward slowly and safely rather than have to pull back suddenly as we were forced to do last spring.”

“We want to proceed in a way that optimizes health and safety,” Peterson said to The Times. “We have great concern for our students and staff.”

NLA is currently planning on opening along the same model as the school district, with in-person learning for the primary grades and a hybrid of in-person learning and distance learning for the secondary grades. NLA is expected to hold an online meeting within the week to announce plans for the fall, including the scheduling of its programs, attendance and grading policy, and other considerations.

“The administration has been planning nonstop to ensure safety while also maintaining a commitment to a quality instructional model,” NLA Executive Director Cam Stottler said.

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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