Elementary school students and early learners will be welcomed back to Bloomington Public Schools buildings beginning Jan. 19, and the district’s extracurricular activities may resume Jan. 4, the school board determined.

During its Dec. 21 meeting, the Bloomington Board of Education voted in favor of bringing students back five days per week and resuming extracurricular activities, based upon recommendations from the district’s administration. The agreement was nearly unanimous, with Boardmember Heather Starks voting against the plan to return students to the classroom on Jan. 19. The plan to resume extracurricular activities was approved by a 7-0 vote.

Elementary students appear to be heading back to the classroom for the second time this year, although details regarding procedures and accommodations under the guidelines of the Minnesota departments of education and health, and the recent executive order of Gov. Tim Walz, are being finalized.

Among the many factors the district must finalize is a tally of students who are returning to school in January. Parents continue to have the right to opt out of in-school instruction during the coronavirus pandemic and continue with distance learning.

Students are permitted to return to the classroom under the new state guidelines beginning Jan. 18. The district will bring students back the next day, as schools are scheduled to be closed Jan. 18 in observance of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Not all elementary students scheduled to return to their classrooms will do so on Jan. 19, however, as the reopening of schools requires a phased approach. Kindergarten through second-grade students will return Jan. 19, as will early learners, but third- through fifth-grade students will wait two weeks and return on Feb. 1, according to Assistant Superintendent Jenna Mitchler.

Elementary students were invited back to their schools in October, after starting their year at home. Attending class with half of their classmates two days per week, students were back at home before Thanksgiving as COVID-19 cases increased locally and nationally. There will be a variety of safeguards and precautions in place when students return five days per week.

Public health

With the holiday break underway, the local COVID-19 case rate was on a clear downward trajectory, according to Nick Kelley, the city of Bloomington’s assistant public health administrator.

“The numbers are clearly going in a positive direction,” he said.

In analyzing the positive cases per 10,000 for the school district, the averages for seven and 14 days made Kelley confident the district would see lower case levels. The state’s guidance recommending students wait past mid-January to bring students back provides added assurance that it will be safe for students to return, he noted. “It is a sound public health approach,” Kelley said.

Social interaction by secondary students is among the reasons they remain in distance learning, Kelley noted.

The state will provide the district additional personal protective equipment, and all staff having direct contact with students will be required to wear masks and face shields, according to Hannah Hatch, the district’s supervisor of health services.

Additional barriers between students and staff must be provided when a staff member cannot maintain 6 feet of separation. Students will not have to maintain social distancing throughout the day, however, or on a school bus. But students may have to eat lunch in their classrooms, unless a school cafeteria is large enough to spread students out while they eat. And students will need to wear face coverings during indoor physical activities, Hatch explained.

Students will remain in classroom cohorts, so a COVID-19 case in their class may require all students from that class to quarantine due to the lifting of social distancing requirements, Hatch noted.

The change in protocols may result in staffing challenges for classroom and distance learning instruction, she added.

The state will provide saliva kits for COVID-19 testing, and that testing may not be available before students are scheduled to return to the classroom. Tests will be provided to all staff with direct student contact, but staff members are not required to take a test, according to Hatch.

Employees may take tests prior to Jan. 18 at Ridgeview Elementary School, which the state is using for COVID-19 testing until students return to the classroom, she noted.

Activities

Students will be allowed to attend practices beginning Jan. 4, but competitions will not be permitted, and there is no date for when competitions will begin, according to Jon Anderson, the activities director at Kennedy High School.

Programs will need to submit a COVID-19 plan for practices or rehearsals, which many programs have already done, he said. Students also need to observe state health department guidelines outside of their practices and rehearsals, as that has been the source of virus transmission among programs during the fall, Anderson noted.

The district’s activity centers at its high schools will reopen Jan. 4, on a limited basis. Walking tracks will be available, but users must remain 12 feet apart, meaning they need to remain on the inside or outside of the track while walking or running laps, according to Jake Winchell, the executive director of community education.

The activity center tracks will be available to Bloomington residents only, but weight rooms will remain closed until the district can meet state requirements for distancing in fitness centers. The current guidelines would limit their use to a handful of patrons at a time, Winchell noted. It is unknown when non-residents will be able to use the activity centers, he added.

Facility rentals for youth sports activities will be available beginning Jan. 4 as well, but it will be initially limited to Bloomington-based organizations. The facilities will not be available for tournaments that attract participants from outside Bloomington, Winchell explained.

Uncertainty

The board asked a variety of questions pertaining to accommodations for state guidelines. In multiple cases the answer has yet to be determined, as the district is waiting for additional guidance from the state.

In proposing to delay the return to the classroom, Starks cited concerns such as how teacher prep time would be accommodated under the limitations. She suggested shortening the school day to allow the prep time, an idea that Boardmember Tom Bennett pondered, noting that the district’s bus service will not be running a three-tier schedule with only elementary students returning to the classroom.

Discussions of alternatives to traditional school days, or four-day school weeks, did not gain traction. Starks, unable to find support for delaying the restart, asked the board to separate the administration’s recommendations into two parts so she could vote against the back-to-school plan and in support of the activities plan.

Boardmember Beth Beebe supported the plan to restart elementary schooling on Jan. 19, noting families are asking the district to find a way to return students to the classroom. Bennett noted that the district has a month to prepare for students to return, and if issues arise that are prohibitive, the board can reverse course or postpone the start date.

Video of the board’s discussion is available online at tr.im/sb1221.

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

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