Gov. Tim Walz announced Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan for the upcoming school year, Thursday. The plan was created in conjunction with Lieutenant Governor Peggy Flanagan, along with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH).

Schools will be able to tailor their plan based on how their community has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. School districts and charter schools will be able to begin the school year with either in-person, distance learning or a combination of the two.

“With this approach, we are pairing the knowledge and data from our Departments of Health and Education with the expertise of our local school districts to make the best decisions for our students across the state,” Walz said.

State officials from MDH and MDE will work with local school districts to determine which learning model would be best for their community. Walz stressed the importance of ensuring the safety of staff and students while providing a quality education. The models can be adapted throughout the year as the COVID-19 pandemic evolves.

“Not all schools look the same, not all parts of our state look the same and we need to take those into consideration. So to parents, my pledge to you is to surround and have the best people, the best minds, the best data to make sure that those localized decisions are being data driven in the best interest of your child,” Walz said.

Regardless of the model chosen by local schools, they must provide a distance learning option. The Governor is also requiring school districts to allow school employees to work remotely when possible.

“It’s going to be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Walz said.

State departments will continue to work with schools throughout the year to adapt the models, striving to keep younger children in the classroom, as socialization is important for their development.

“While some are eager to be back in the classroom, others have very real concerns about health and safety. That’s why the Safe Learning Plan sets the guidelines for how safely a school can reopen, based on regional data and the expertise of public health leaders and local administrators, while still allowing families, teachers, and staff to make the decision to stay home,” said Lt. Governor Flanagan.

Walz announced that over $430 million will be available for schools, educators, students and families. Some of that funding can provide face coverings, a COVID-19 testing plan, and even help with access to technology, the internet, transportation and cleaning supplies.

Regardless of the education model chosen by districts, the upcoming school year presents a list of hurdles and adjustments for staff and students alike. Food service and transportation were key aspects that area superintendents acknowledged would see changes, as the services are necessary to students everywhere.

The following information provided by area superintendents is all tentative and most hope to issue finalized plans in August.

All administrators stressed that the food quality and the access to food will continue as is, but the delivery method will be adjusted.

Pillager schools superintendent, Mike Malmberg, said students likely won’t be self-serving meals any longer, a plan echoed by Upsala Supt. Vern Capelle, Pierz Supt. George Weber, Little Falls Supt. Steve Jones and Royalton Supt. John Phelps.

“The pieces that will change is that the food service employees will handle everything and we will have social distancing in place in our cafeterias and some younger students will be served in their classrooms,” Malmberg said.

For breakfast those students will either have their meal delivered or have a grab-and-go option.

Jones said one thing students have truly missed with distance learning is socialization, something he wants to bring back in the upcoming school year.

“We are going to make every opportunity available to have kids eat lunch as normally as possible. It may look different but our desire is to have food service as normal as possible,” he said.

Social distancing at lunch hour is going to be a change for Royalton schools, Phelps said. But, after a survey issued in early July, he found that about 20% of families said they would prefer to keep their students in distance learning, giving the building a little more room for other students to share.

“No matter what, we cannot do the same as we have in the past. We have to social distance when we’re getting lunch, so the table that used to sit 12 now sits three,” he said.

Since schools will offer a distance learning option regardless of orders by the governor, Capelle said Upsala planned for serving students at home as well.

“When in distance learning, we will have to distribute meals to students who are not physically present in the school, which will create a need for additional protocols for handling and delivery,” he said

For students attending in-person class, Capelle said they may have to eat in various rooms throughout the school to manage social distancing guidelines.

Although nothing is finalized, Weber said Pierz schools will strive to provide a good meal to students.

“We will go above and beyond to be safe, yet still provide quality. So we are making accommodations to how children pick up the meal tray, provide larger seating spaces, etc,” he said.

Transportation was another hot topic among the superintendents when discussing tentative plans for the upcoming school year.

Malmberg said Pillager schools bus companies “are ready and prepared to go back” and all precautions will follow state guidelines.

However, with shortages of staff, other districts have expressed greater concern.

“I feel this will be the biggest factor in determining our success at implementing each scenario. We were already struggling to find drivers to run routes, transports (for) extracurriculars, and subs for other drivers. If we have drivers who get sick or have to quarantine, it will certainly add a strain to our system and require us to make adjustments … possibly even increases our bus route distances and times … which will have an impact on our operations in general,” Capelle said of Upsala schools.

Royalton schools issued a survey asking if parents would have the means to find alternative transportation for their children, as staffing and capacity is a concern. Over 60% of parents said they did not need the bus service if it was a difficult option for the district.

“This town is something I have admired and, same with my staff, when you tell them ‘I need a helping hand to make this work,’ They do everything in their power to do that if they can,” Phelps said

Little Falls Schools may face a challenge if bus capacity is decreased, which could affect a multitude of daily schedules, Jones said. But he has a meeting planned with the bus services early next week to finalize details now that Walz has issued his guidance.

Weber said busing is one of the biggest challenges for the Pierz School District.

“Many schools will have to rely on more parents who can find a way for their child to get to and from school. Pierz is blessed with a terrific group of bus drivers who form their own family of support and hopefully we can meet the busing need with these staff. Based upon our initial parent survey data we believe we can,” he said.

Bus capacity guidelines from the state will determine finalized details regarding bus routes for the district, Weber said, and they may end up staggering the start and end times of the school day, as would other districts.

Superintendents from all five districts said cleaning and disinfection protocols will take place daily and weekly. Classrooms, hallways, bathrooms and any place students and staff utilize will be regularly cleaned by staff.

With distance learning, an option provided by all districts, the superintendents have noted that time in the spring was a learning experience to use in future decisions.

“For Pierz, the hybrid model and the distance learning model are very different. We intend on bringing in all K-4 children every day even if we are in a hybrid model. We will have all 5-12 children here a couple days per week as well,” Weber said.

In Little Falls, 81 teachers have taken an intensive online teaching course to develop a curriculum specific to distance learning, Jones said.

“What we have to realize is that in the spring it was emergency learning. I mean it was done district-wide but it was emergency learning. We had seven or eight days to prepare for it, so we were taking curriculum that was made to be in person and basically overnight trying to switch it to full online,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

From last spring’s experience and the unknowns of the future, Jones said the district will be able to provide distance learning as an option for any student anytime in the future, even without a pandemic. All K-4 students will receive updated iPads so that every student in the district will be able to run the same programs, Jones said.

He plans to release another version of the school district’s plans for the year around Aug. 5 to parents and the community. Another survey asking about the needs of district families and students will be released as well, to help determine details surrounding internet access, food, child care, transportation and more.

Although plans are ever-changing, Capelle said Upsala school staff are going to provide as much support as possible to families.

“This may include providing school devices and training to operate efficiently with the devices. Our goal would be to provide as much support as we possibly can. We want families to feel confident in whatever model we implement,” he said.

Pillager schools are still working on details as well, Malmberg said, but the district is planning to supply devices and internet access to those who need it.

In Royalton, Phelps said he supports that families have the choice to implement distance learning in their homes and that educators in the district are prepared to accommodate them.

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