Not until 4 p.m. a little over a week before most classes ended did Westonka Schools receive guidance from the Minnesota departments of Heath and Education around summer classes and community education, the latter of which would start within a month.
District staff met May 27 to determine what could be kept, what had to be modified and what had to be cut as they put every part of the district’s summer programming through a test of social distancing, daily temperature checks and what the district’s staffing and building capacity could bear after a new standard for hybrid learning, a 9-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio, was handed down from the Department of Health.
Mark Femrite, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Westonka, said planning for summer was “new territory” and called the process a whole “different animal” from what he and others in administration went through in March.
At that time, developing the district’s distance learning plan was “more about adapting practices we already had in place,” he said, contrasting this with a new need to consider more strongly the health and safety side of things as the district puts in place a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning for its summer classes.
Westonka Schools will be following those guidelines laid out by MDH as summer classes start up July 8 in what will be an every-other-day schedule for learning in the classroom and learning at home. Daily temperature checks, on-site nurses and extensive sanitation will be the norm.
Kindergarten readiness checks, usually begun in spring, are this year delayed to August, while Early Childhood Family Education was nixed entirely.
Summer enrichment programs will this year be limited to those kids in its Adventure Club child care, which has itself been limited since mid-March to families of Tier 1 and Tier 2 workers, whom MDE has deemed “critical.” The Adventure Club program will run as small groups of one staff member and nine students, and the small group will be the same 10 members through the end of the seassion to ensure contact with fewer people.
Joel Dahl, community education services director for Westonka, cited staffing, space requirements for social distancing and reducing the number of kids coming into the building as consideration that had to be made, noting also that only about “a dozen” kids outside of Adventure Club would in a typical year sign up for summer programs.
The district had already cancelled its group swim lessons in favor of individual lessons per MDH guidelines, but Dahl said that most programs would likely still be offered for Adventure Club kids in some form.
“We’re still holding out hope that a majority of these programs are going to happen, but they may be pushed back or changed slightly to accommodate our social distancing guidelines we have to follow,” said Dahl.
Other cancellations are finite. Westonka Community Theatre cancelled its summer production of “The Wizard of Oz,” and the Westonka Activity Center, like other gyms and fitness centers in the state, remains closed with no solid date for reopening.
“We’ll learn from this summer on a very small scale and I know it’s going to help us this fall, not only with our regular K-12 schooling, but think about all our enrichment activities, sports, all those things we do in the community through community ed,” said Femrite. “We’re going to swing the bat hard—and hopefully effectively—this summer, but we’ll also be watching and adapting to these practices [that] I can guarantee you are going to go into practice in some shape or another this fall when school starts.”
District officials said they don’t expect any guidance around the state’s expectations for the 2020-2021 school year until at least early August.
All options—distance learning, a hybrid model and traditional in-person learning—remain on the table, but officials are saying the preference is always that face-to-face, kids-at-their-desks kind of instruction.
“It’s one thing to end the year in a distance learning model—you’ve already built your relationships with your students,” said Femrite. “How do you start a year when, especially young children, cannot see their teacher face-to-face in a classroom, building a classroom camaraderie together?”
Westonka Superintendent Kevin Borg confirmed that the intention is to run all programming come fall but that it’s still a question of what that may look like.
“When we look at the enormity of what our fall launch looks like—it’s bringing in new students, it’s bringing all activities back, different events that are going on; it’s how we train our teachers, it’s orientations…it’s the excitement of a new school year,” he said. “And so our efforts are, one, being prepared: we’re going to plan on everything being able to happen. The second thing is just building capacity so we can be flexible because we know that to some degree we’re going to have to accept that we’re going to have to make some changes and modify how these operate.”