If and when Bloomington students return to the classroom for the 2020-21 school year has yet to be determined, but Bloomington Public Schools is planning an online option regardless of which education model the state deems appropriate this fall.

Bloomington Online School is an option that will be available to students in September, and registration is already underway. “We believe we have the expertise to create an option better than any of those being advertised to our families from organizations outside of Bloomington,” said John Weisser, the district’s executive director of technology and information services.

The option is being made available as the district plans for one of three models, to be determined by the state, that will guide classroom activities when the new academic year begins.

The district provided an overview of its planning for the coming school year during an online presentation July 14. The Minnesota Department of Education is expected to announce next week which model school districts will follow this fall. The coronavirus pandemic ended the 2019-20 school year with students studying and learning from home, and districts across the state are preparing for the possibility that their buildings will be mostly empty again this fall.

In an effort to provide social distancing between students, districts may be ordered to institute a hybrid model, where students will attend classes for a portion of the week and spend the balance of their time learning from home, while other students are receiving in-class instruction.

And even if school districts can conduct traditional classes this fall, adjustments will be made in response to the pandemic, according to Bloomington officials.

The district’s planning began in May, and included designing of the online school, knowing that some families will be hesitant to send students back to traditional classrooms this fall. And MDE requires the district to provide an option for those families, Weisser noted.

The district’s research and surveying in preparation for the coming school year showed that 32% of families were uncertain about sending their children to a traditional classroom this fall. Of those expressing uncertainty, 26% said they were considering an online only option, according to Weisser.

District personnel surveys showed that 16% of its staff expressed uncertainty about returning to a classroom setting, and 47% were interested in online education options, Weisser said.

The district has been providing online education in a limited capacity, as high school students have had access to fully online courses for three years, and nearly 40% of students at Bloomington’s high schools took an online course last year, according to Weisser.

With experience to build upon and families seeking online options, the district is moving ahead with online education for all grade levels, emphasizing a balance of on- and off-screen activities at the elementary grades and building a collaborative community for secondary students with engaging and interactive courses. The district is working with the University of Minnesota to accelerate its content development, and more than 75 staff members are participating in the development this summer, Weisser explained.

Registration for the online school opened July 15 and is available through the end of the month. A family advisory meeting is scheduled Aug. 11, with student orientation scheduled for the week of Aug. 17. Online school will begin Aug. 31, and will follow the district’s 2020-21 calendar, Weisser said.

Families choosing the online school are asked to commit to it for the entire school year, as it will provide stability for both the faculty and students during the school year, and community building will be an important component of the program, according to Weisser. There will be a transfer process if needed, but the district wants transfers to be rare and meaningful, he noted.

Fall model

For families not electing to enroll in Bloomington Online School, the district is preparing to begin the year using the model designated by the state, and will be prepared to switch models should circumstances dictate. If the school year starts with distance learning, the same model that ended the last school year, the district will be better prepared to accommodate students as they complete their school work at home, according to Andy Kubas, the district’s executive director of teaching and learning.

“We know that there are some students and families, and teachers, who were left behind in this model, not only in the Bloomington Public Schools, but across the nation,” Kubas said.

The planning for this spring’s distance learning occurred over the span of eight days, and could have taken eight months to design properly, according to Kubas. It wasn’t a perfect model, but it was workable for most families, he added.

Students come to school for stability, resources and hope, although traditional school does not work for every student, Kubas noted. Distance learning exacerbates that, and it will be important for the district to reach students who may otherwise be left behind, he explained.

The district is good at solving problems when it knows what the problems are, and many times the district relies upon its relationships in the schools to identify issues. Under distance learning, the district will need to reach all students and families this fall, Kubas added.

One of the issues being discussed is synchronous learning, the interaction between teachers and students at a set time of the day. Distance learning will utilize synchronous leaning, which is a challenge for students who are unable to connect with their class at the set time. How frequent synchronous learning will be used under distance learning is still being discussed, but it is important that students have a connection with one another and their teacher, Kubas explained.

The district will continue to resolve digital access issues for students whose families otherwise may not be able to provide it, he noted.

If a hybrid model is chosen for this fall, students will attend school at least two days per week, and will participate in remote learning on the days they are not in their building. Students would attend on Mondays and Thursdays or Tuesdays and Fridays, with Wednesdays being available for special instruction or for cleaning within the buildings, according to Rachel Gens, the district’s curriculum and instruction director. Students in special populations may attend school more frequently, she noted.

A district team considered several potential hybrid models, with several considerations for selecting a model for Bloomington. The ability of the model to provide for the health and safety of a building’s students and staff while allowing for high quality instruction and learning were among the considerations, Gens said. Providing social, emotional and mental health supports for students and being able to efficiently execute school and district functions, such as transportation, were also considerations in choosing the model, she added.

Having students spend full days in school rather than half days reduces the time lost to transitions and transportation, and allows for deeper instruction, addressing more subjects throughout the day, Gens explained.

If the district can move forward this fall in a traditional sense, it will be business as usual, almost. “Things change, and we think that schooling is going to change based on COVID,” according to Kubas.

Health and safety strategies may change when all students return to their classrooms, much the same as commercial aviation practices have changed since the 1980s, he noted.

When students return to school, under either the hybrid or traditional model, the district will adjust as necessary to address health and safety guidelines. Teams, including architects and health and safety consultants, have examined district buildings to ensure social distancing can be maintained under a hybrid model, while seating practices in cafeterias may be the same under the hybrid or traditional model, according to Rod Zivkovich, the district’s executive director of finance and support services.

Other considerations the district will address include social distancing on school buses under hybrid education, providing personal protection equipment for both staff and students and providing protection for employees working at the entrance of district facilities, Zivkovich said.

There are many unanswered questions at this point regarding child care services provided by the district. The education model will dictate some of the decisions made by the district. Under a hybrid model, child care will be limited and spread out through district buildings. If distance learning continues this fall, child care can be directed to specific buildings since there will be no classroom instruction, according to Jake Winchell, the district’s executive director of community education.

Capacity may not meet the demand for child care in the community, and the eligibility and allocation of available child care services are unknown at this time, Winchell noted. The plan will be finalized in August, after the education model is announced, he added.

The district will hold another online forum Aug. 11 as final preparations are being made for the start of the school year. Video of the July 14 presentation is available online at tr.im/july14.

Follow Bloomington community editor Mike Hanks on Twitter at @suncurrent and on Facebook at suncurrentcentral.

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