Minnesota public school oficials expect to hear guidance from MDH around the fall start to the school year by the week of July 27. Photo: Kids at Shirley hills played Pictionary on their first day back to school last year. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer file photo)

Minnesota public school officials expect to hear by the week of July 27 state recommendations on K-12 students’ return to school this fall, giving staff at districts across the state just over a month to refine and put into action one of three plans for the start to the 2020 school year: distance, hybrid or in-person learning.

Of the three options, officials are seeing a hybrid model as being the “greatest lift” for the strictures that come with it.

Westonka has been running a hybrid model for its summer classes and extended school year (ESY) programming, but enrollment for summer is a fraction of what the district is projecting for the regular academic year and requirements already outlined by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) show that requirements for a hybrid model would be more strict than those for purely in-person learning.

Facilities and transportation vehicles under a hybrid model would be limited to 50 percent maximum capacity, and the 6 feet of social distancing would be enforced at all times, including during primary instruction times, a requirement that would not be strictly enforced for a fully in-person model. Districts would also be required to provide contactless pickup or delivery of meals and school materials for days when students and staff are not in the building, in addition to opening the cafeterias.

If Westonka admits students under a hybrid model, the district is looking at an on-off schedule wherein students would switch between classroom instruction and distance learning every other day. That schedule would likely be determined alphabetically by students’ last names in order to keep households together when students are on site.

Westonka officials recognized at the July 13 board meeting the additional challenge this could bring at the higher grade levels where student choice in things like electives, foreign language and AP courses might mean that a first period class hits half capacity just fine only for a second period class to miss the mark, either by filling desks beyond the 50 percent limit or by leaving a classroom underutilized.

“There’s a lot of detail to this that we’re right now trying to work through,” said Kevin Borg, Westonka superintendent. “We have to work through those challenges of making sure that we meet those guidelines with the complexity of allowing different student choices.” Borg also suggested that some priority for more classroom days would be given in this model to those students who might benefit more from in-person instruction, including those in special education, which follows a recommendation by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE).

But transportation could be the biggest hurdle in a hybrid model. Limited to 50 percent occupancy and further constrained by strict social distancing, each school bus would carry just 13 students at a time. Each of Westonka’s bus routes currently serves between 40 and 65 students; a recent survey sent to parents showed that the district could expect an average of 52 students per bus this fall under the current system, necessitating double routes—with a turn-around time of 30-40 minutes—and the addition of extra buses, which may come with a $46,000 price tag and a search for more drivers to operate them.

The district likely would be able to operate under its current bussing levels if it is able to offer in-person delivery because social distancing would not be strictly enforced under that model, said Borg, who said then the difficulty lies primarily in back-filling positions to ensure enough substitute drivers are available in case of illness.

But in-person delivery comes with its own collateral burden. A requirement already outlined by MDE would further tax school officials who are now recognizing that in-person learning would mean offering a dual delivery model. MDE has specifically stated that even if schools do reopen to in-person learning this fall, families will be able to opt out of that model in favor of distance-only education. 

“Probably the greatest thing is for our staff to figure out how are we going to teach kids that are in front of us and kids that are distanced at the same time?” said Borg.

District staff hadn’t yet made the call by the July 13 board meeting on how to run an opt-out schedule, and Borg noted the challenge in balancing this family choice with staffing, saying that having weekly fluctuations in on-site enrollment would be difficult logistically, especially where substitute teaching assignments are concerned.

School officials, Westonka and elsewhere, are also waiting to hear guidance from MDH on how to handle confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19, with information from MDH currently limited to asking that districts appoint a contact person for reporting, impose a daily regimen of pre-screening for symptoms and designate sick rooms for students and staff who show any signs of illness during the school day.

Guidance around getting tested in the event a teacher or student displays symptoms, or in the timeline for return to school after being symptomatic, is also anticipated July 27. Test results are generally not available for five to seven days; current recommendation from MDH is to quarantine for 10 days from onset of symptoms. School officials are as yet undecided on whether entire classrooms would be asked to remain at home if a student or teacher in that class does test positive for COVID-19.

Borg indicated that he is aware that any decision on testing or how the district responds to positive cases could play into that moving figure of how many families opt out of in-person learning. “We know this is a reality that could push parents into making different decisions,” said Borg, who then reaffirmed the importance in offering this choice. 

Once the governor makes his call, expected late this week or early next, staff will fine-tune plans for all learning models with the knowledge they may have to switch mid-year and may only get 24 hours’ adjustment.

The school board is scheduled to hear more details for distance, hybrid and in-person learning at the Aug. 10 board meeting, and final communication for the fall start will be sent to district staff and families by Aug. 17. School starts Sept. 8.

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