By Jim Boyle

Lisa Olson, the president of the teachers union for more than 900 teachers, addressed the Elk River Area School Board on Aug. 10 with lots of questions and a reminder that as decision-makers they have a tremendous amount of power and responsibility.

As a teacher in the school district for 24 years and the proud parent of two high school students, she called educators “protectors.”

“When COVID-19 turned our world upside down last spring, district administrators and educators, ‘the protectors,’ led our students and families on a new and unfamiliar path, doing our work through distance learning,” she told the board. “It wasn’t easy, but it was a safer way to educate.”

The longtime educator said teachers and administrators now find themselves in the midst of another uncertain future.

“We are grateful the district has involved us,” Olson said, noting about 60 EREA members were volunteering their time to work on plans to be considered in the district’s final decisions.

“No matter what final decisions are made, we know that we will not only educate our students but that we will need to emphasize our roles as protectors in the district,” Olson said. “Protectors of our students and their families, protectors of our school staff and their families and protectors of our own families.”

To do that Olson sought assurances from district leadership and the board that teachers and the community can count on the district to be committed to rigorous safety precautions.

She said recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted how crucial it is to continue prevention efforts wherever children gather, specifically citing schools and child care centers.

“The COVID-19 preparedness plan is a general outline of how to prepare to protect,” Olson said. “Our educators and those we serve deserve to see an updated plan readily available with details about how we are going to protect our learning communities.

“If we provide education in-person or hybrid we need to ensure that not only the county numbers show that we are ready to open but that each and every building is ready and safe.”

As president of the EREA, she said she has had numerous educators reach out to her with questions.

“We need answers to important questions,” she said.

She offered a litany of questions, including:

• Will all buildings have enough personal protective equipment, cleaning staff, cleaning products and cleaning protocols in place?

• Do all buildings have satisfactory HVAC systems and air quality?

• How will face coverings be uniformly enforced?

• Do all of our buildings and spaces allow for appropriate social distancing?

“Whether we are back fully or at 50% capacity, social distancing when possible is just not enough,” she said. “If the schools are not ready to open safely, is the district prepared to keep our learning community safe by altering your plan?”

With the face-to-face model, schools are asked to create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but will not be held strictly to enforcing 6 feet of social distancing during instructional time.

In the hybrid model, 50% occupancy is a requirement for schools and buses.

A 50% occupancy rate in a classroom translates to 22 students in one of the district’s smaller classrooms (or more, depending on the size).

A 50% occupancy rate on a school bus translates to about 38 or 39 students on a school bus.

Teachers have expressed concerns about how much time will be provided to prepare to educate students in new ways.

“We will need time to do it right and to do it better,” Olson said.

Classroom teachers will be teaching an in-person audience and distance learners at once under the current models being implemented. Younger students will come every day. Some will do distance learning. There will be full-time distance learners at the secondary level, with the majority coming two days a week on an A/B schedule with Fridays being distance learning for all students and extra cleaning.

Olson concluded by noting board and administration hold a lot of power and a lot of responsibility.

“We need transparent updated COVID plans to follow the CDC guidelines in place at all of our schools and sites before we open the doors to make the magic of learning begin again.”

Superintendent Daniel Bittman thanked Olson for her “involvement and continued passion and concern around all employees.”

He said, “We too will continue to advocate and work together.”

Bittman said in addition to the 55-60 teachers involved there are representatives from all of the bargaining units.

The superintendent said the district has its plans on its website, and they adhere to all of the state’s recommendations.

“Those plans will not have prescriptive absolute details as all of us want,” Bittman said. “We will continue work with our buildings, teachers, staff, etc. to navigate that. Some of that will have to be learning as we go.”

Bittman said it’s important to note that the district will follow the recommendations of the Minnesota Department of Health.

“That’s what will guide our decisions,” he said. “It won’t always be comfortable. We are in a pandemic. There will always be some level of inherent risk by sending our kids to school, to the grocery store, to the Home Depot. We are all learning together.”

Bittman said the district is ready to make changes if it needs to make them.

“That’s why we have been working so hard on making three different plans and bringing hundreds of people together,” he said. “We will continue to use the data.”

Changes may be necessary, he said.

“That is not comfortable for staff and that will not be comfortable for families,” Bittman said. “We have to use the data to make those decisions.”

Bittman said there are protocols for cleaning, the district’s HVAC systems will run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, instead of just during the instructional day when kids are there, and there will be enough personal protective equipment.

“Every staff will have access to masks and shields,” he said, adding that those teachers with underlying health conditions have a process set out by state and federal law that the district is going through with employees seeking accommodations.

He said all staff will be required to wear a mask, and there are only three reasons for a student not being required to wear one (developmental, behavior or health concerns) and those that have these concerns might not be suited for on-site learning.

“Staff will wear masks,” Bittman said. “We will provide shields for those who need that.”

The school district received more than $800,000 in CARES Act funding that is being used for coronavirus-related expenses like personal protective equipment, or PPE, for staff and students, Bittman said.

“We have spent over $200,000 on hand sanitizer and PPE,” Bittman stated on a Zoom call when asked by the Star News about funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act.

Bittman also noted the district needed to hire an additional nurse and will fill in an additional health assistant who moves from site to site as the need arises.

Money from the federal coronavirus rescue package will also be used to provide two extra days for special education teachers who have additional state and federal paperwork to complete for IEPs and health plans.

“Two additional days is not enough,” Bittman said. “But it’s something.”

Case managers must work with individual families to make sure students with special needs are getting what they need as we move forward, Bittman said.

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