Last year on March 15, we announced to our families that the impending pandemic was forcing our schools to close and to begin planning for distance learning. We soon learned that our schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year.  Students and staff transitioned overnight to distance learning, connecting with each other on a computer screen and doing all they could to continue learning. 

We have learned so much since the onset of COVID-19 and its impact on schools. While following CDC guidelines, our schools have remained safely open for most of the school year except during the surge in cases over the holiday season. Currently, all students in the district attend school full-time with the exception of Fridays when secondary students attend class remotely. 

I am simply amazed at what our system has accomplished over this last year. Our educators have created distance learning and hybrid learning systems, which are dramatically different from in-class learning. Each learning model transition required the development and implementation of new child care programming. Throughout the year, bus drivers and custodians have been cleaning and disinfecting surfaces to keep spaces safe for students. Thousands of meals have been provided for students learning at home. Countless computers have been processed and prepared for students learning at home. The continuous echo throughout the year has been “We got this!” 

Initial assessments of learning show that students have advanced their learning over the last year. We remained focused on helping students make up for lost ground due to times of distance learning and modified class schedules. The long-term impacts of the pandemic on student learning is yet to be determined. In addition to student learning needs, we are supporting the social and emotional needs of our students as they navigate changes in their world. The effects of less social interaction with their peers and teachers are real and must be addressed. 

With the transition to spring, we are beginning to plan for the end of the year and the start of the next school year. Last year, the high school graduation became a drive-through event and elementary students waved good-bye from their cars as they drove through parking lots lined with their teachers. With updated CDC and MDH guidance on large gatherings, we are in the early stages of planning some form of in-person graduation. A traditional graduation ceremony will mark the end of a very long journey and celebrate the immense resilience of our students and staff. 

At this time, we are enthusiastically planning for in-person learning for all students next year. We will also be prepared to provide a distance learning option for students who have ongoing health concerns as we reach the end of the pandemic. I am in no position to declare the end to the pandemic. I am, however, well-positioned to say that we will be ready for students next year with the exciting and dynamic education families have come to expect.

Steve Massey is the superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools. 

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