By TOM FENTON

A long and trying week that was filled with extended and emotional discussion with wide varying opinions came to a conclusion Friday, Aug. 28, when the Osseo School District voted to start the 2020-21 school year using distance learning.

At an emergency meeting that started at 7:30 a.m. via Zoom, the board voted by a 4-1 margin to approve Superintendent Cory McIntyre’s recommendation to use distance learning when the school year begins on Sept. 14 and continue through Sept. 25. Under the plan, schools in the district will implement a hybrid model of in-class and distance learning on Sept. 28.

The morning session was a to-the-point affair, lasting 25 minutes. It was a stark contrast from the Aug. 25 five-hour marathon meeting that ultimately ended with the board voting 3-2 against McIntyre’s recommendation to start the year using a distance learning plus model until Oct. 14 and resuming with a hybrid model on Oct. 19 when students come back from the traditional MEA break. At Tuesday’s meeting, the board did approve delaying the start of the school year until Monday, Sept. 14.

“Tuesday night was a long evening for all of us,” McIntyre said. “This will provide additional time to ensure all safety components of the Minnesota Safe Learning Plan are able to be implemented. The board indicated (Aug. 25) they would be open to a different recommendation. After taking that feedback, the administration and I worked on an updated recommendation to provide two weeks of distance learning to allow the district more time to plan for the implementation of the hybrid model”

He continued, “This updated recommendation focuses on the same three indicators for a successful start to the year. Those include monitoring virus rates in local communities to ensure safety for all of our students and staff; ensuring staff preparedness and properly staffing for Distance Learning Academy at all the school sites, including hiring new employees where we are short-staffed; and also providing additional staff training for effective instruction in the hybrid model. I feel it’s important to say again how complicated and complex the whole thing is. As we wrestle with this, it continues to be fluid and there are no easy answers. It’s hard to find solutions that everyone will agree on. There is a wide range of beliefs on what should happen and it all comes with high emotion.”

The hybrid model was approved earlier in August, but McIntyre brought forward a revised plan because positive coronavirus cases in Brooklyn Center and Brooklyn Park raised concern. Board members Mike Ostaffe, Tanya Simons, Jackie Mosqueda-Jones and Kelsey Dawson-Walton all voted in favor of the revised recommendation. Ostaffe and Simons both voted “no” on Tuesday but voted in favor on Friday when the time-frame of using distance learning was reduced to two weeks. Heather Douglass was the lone dissenting vote.

“I feel that we have prepared our schools to meet the health and safety requirements and we should be ready to accept students in our buildings,” Douglass said.

NO EASY ANSWERS

With positive case rates fluctuating daily and a faction of staff members expressing health concerns about teaching in-person, this issue wasn’t going to disappear.

“This is going to be really difficult for many of our families, and there is no easy to answer,” said Mosqueda-Jones, who voted for McIntyre’s recommendation both Tuesday and Friday. “There will be difficulties no matter which way we go. Our students’ safety, health and well-being are at the top of our minds.”

Dawson-Walton also admitted this was a difficult decision. On Tuesday, she asked if the board could table voting on McIntyre’s recommendation. By Friday, she agreed that starting with distance learning was the right decision.

“There are so many perspectives out there,” Dawson-Welton said. “I have a network of school board directors throughout the state, and this discussion is happening everywhere. The most important thing is to make a decision and to take the approach of the recommendation from our administration. We have asked very good questions over the last six months over re-opening in the fall. It sounds cliché’ at this point, but I don’t think there’s anybody that doesn’t want to be in school. But I also want our teachers, educators and students and extended families to be safe.”

Not surprisingly, feedback from parents has been rampant on this topic – which Simons has welcomed.

“It’s been incredible to see the amount of voices coming in,” Simons said. “I think it’s critical to the process. Many of the emails I received started with ‘I’ve never emailed the board before.’ I think it’s awesome to see that degree of engagement. I implore the public to always feel free to email us on behalf of your children. That’s who we’re here to serve. I hear the concerns from families that say we’re not ready yet. I also understand the massive undertaking of a district of our size. I want our students to have the best experience possible when they’re coming back. I think the two-week period is right at this time.

Delaying the start of the school year until Sept. 14, McIntyre said, also gives the administration needed time to address staffing issues. When the Distance Learning Academy option was given to students and families, it was anticipated about 2,000-3,000 would take that option. Students who take the DLA option had to commit for the entire school year, and more than 5,000 of the almost 19,000 enrolled in the district are expected to take that route.

“That requires a larger shifting of staff to meet this need,” McIntyre said. “This also has a large impact on our school sites when larger than expected enrollment shifts will occur. Larger numbers of staff will be reassigned and will have completely new teaching assignments.”

The goal of everyone, it appears, mostly remains the same. The board, staff, parents and students want to be in school as long as it’s safe.

“It was apparent Tuesday that there was one thing we can all agree on,” McIntyre said. “We all want to have our students back in school as soon as possible. In a typical year, we would know what school should look like to start. This year, because of the pandemic, change is really the only constant we’ve been feeling and it’s testing our collective spirit.

“To our parents — our staff can’t wait to see your children. Whether it’s on-screen or face-to-face, they’re excited to start building relationships and start connecting with them. The goal of (two weeks of distance learning) is to ensure we are truly ready to restart on Sept. 14 and provide your scholar with the best experience possible for the upcoming school year.”

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