Schools prepare for distance learning, and provide food, mental health and child care services
Following the announcement by Gov. Tim Walz of the temporary closures of all K-12 schools in the state on Sunday, March 15, Forest Lake Area Schools Superintendent Steve Massey announced the closure of all schools in the district beginning on Monday, March 16, which will be effective through March 31.
Because area charter schools align their school calendars with the district, Lakes International Language Academy and North Lakes Academy will also be closed during the same duration. (Forest Lake Area schools, North Lakes Academy and Lakes International Language Academy were scheduled to have spring break March 23-30.) This means that all school-related activities have been suspended until further notice.
Massey said that there were two main reasons for the closure beginning Monday instead of Wednesday. First, Massey and district officials had heard of parents’ concerns of sending their children to school. Second, under the governor’s direction to prepare for long-term distance learning, Massey said it would be critical to allow teachers and administration an extra two days to work on a plan for distance learning prior to the closure and the district’s spring break. Distance learning is an education plan that the state has had in place for a number of years that allows students and teachers to work off-site. E-learning, which the district approved prior to the beginning of this school year, is specific for snow days.
Nutritional and mental health
One of the requirements of the executive order declared by Walz was that meals for all children should remain available. The Forest Lake Area School District will offer meals for all students, regardless of school, from 10 a.m. to noon each weekday at Forest View Elementary School, Wyoming Elementary School, Lino Lakes Elementary School, and Forest Lake Area High School.
“Obviously we want to make sure we’re serving the families that rely on the service and who depend upon those meals,” Massey said. Massey noted that the district is also partnering with neighboring districts so that students can attend the location nearest to them regardless of the student’s district.
On the charter school front, North Lakes Academy will provide grab-and-go-style meals for families in need at its new K-8 campus location. LILA is working to assess the need for meals within its school; administration is coordinating efforts with Forest Lake Area Schools.
Currently, FLASD has no plans to utilize bus drivers to transport meals, but at some point that could change depending on the needs of the community.
Districts, by executive order, are still required to offer any mental health services to students. Currently, the Forest Lake Area School District has a partnership with Canvas Health and utilizes four health workers throughout the district. Those mental health workers have been granted access to meeting room space for teleconferencing with any students to offer that support. However, if an in-person meeting needs to take place, that would need to be done off-site.
Walz’s executive order requires schools to still provide child care for school age children of health care professionals, first responders, and other emergency workers during the previously planned school days to ensure Minnesota’s first line of defense against COVID-19.
Through Tuesday, all students previously enrolled in the district’s School Age Care and Sonic programs can attend as usual. Beginning Wednesday, the district will restrict child care for only those who are health care providers, law enforcement officers, first responders, or other critical service personnel during regular school hours at Wyoming and Forest View Elementary Schools. Those people can also opt to purchase child care for the hours of 6 to 9 a.m. and 4 to 6 p.m. depending on needs.
NLA and LILA have already begun providing child care for those in front-line jobs.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for area schools will be the transition from an in-person classroom setting to a distance learning setting after students return from spring break. Districts have been told to plan long-term, which is requiring administrators and teachers to think on their feet to develop a teaching plan.
NLA Executive Director Cam Stottler said that the teachers and administration are working together to provide equitable distance learning programs. This includes a free Chromebook through a lease program and coordinating efforts with internet companies so all students have internet.
“This is an unprecedented educational shift that is being done on the fly,” Stottler said.
For LILA, the implementation of the distance learning for the upper grades isn’t as difficult.
“LILA’s Upper School for grades 6-12 has incorporated one-to-one online learning for several years, so we expect a seamless transition for those students and their parents,” said LILA communications coordinator Tracy Maurer.
The transition for teachers and students grades K-5 are more of a challenge, she said, but the school still expects the transition to go well, given the curriculum the school employs.
“I’m confident in our staff’s ability to create engaging and effective solutions during this challenging situation,” LILA Executive Director Shannon Peterson said. “The flexibility of the International Baccalaureate curriculum supports unique approaches.”
The Forest Lake Area School District administration spent hours together on Sunday developing a plan at the district office.
“I’m incredibly impressed with the commitment, the professionalism, and the drive our staff has to pivot our organization almost on a dime to deliver education differently. Their energy around that, the resilience around this, is just remarkable,” Massey said. “It’s energizing to see the drive and passion they are bringing into this.”
Districts have until April 1 to develop and help teachers prepare to implement the changes. More meetings are planned to do so.
“We’re creating this as we go. There’s not a three-ring binder as we do this,” Massey said. “But we have an incredible team of professionals in this system who are working tirelessly to make this happen.”
Families will need to adjust to a new style of education, and Massey is calling for help from parents and caretakers.
“Schools can’t do this work alone. It’s a community response. Clearly the parents and families play a monumental role in making the education work in this environment. We can provide the resources and the opportunity, but facilitating kids’ engaging and learning at home will require a real commitment on the part of parents to partner with their kids,” Massey said. He also suggested parents consider and prepare for a long-term distance learning scenario.
The Minnesota Department of Education so far has no current plan to extend a testing window for state standard testing.
“We appreciate our families’ patience and understanding. We will get through this as a community and as a team,” Massey said.