From her south Minneapolis living room, Becca Buck sent daily video lessons to students in her six classes.
Human interaction had gone digital for the Gideon Pond Elementary School music specialist. One of her classroom lessons is a song accompanied by a bean bag-tossing game. With no classroom, she asked students to record, shoot video of or simply type the “body percussion” they substituted for the bean bag toss.
“It’s been kind of an overwhelming day,” Buck said Monday, April 6, the first full day of distance learning for elementary students in Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191. “I can’t keep up. Every time I refresh there’s like 10 new comments. It’s fun.”
The district spent most of 2020 reacting and adjusting to the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, the School Board made budget cuts and decisions on the future of Metcalf Middle School and other facilities. Issues of staff diversity and racial justice arose. An election was held, and the board appointed its first Somali American member. The pandemic prompted an abrupt settlement of prolonged teacher contract negotiations.
From the pages of Burnsville-Eagan Sun Thisweek, here are some highlights of the year in District 191.
On March 16, Superintendent Theresa Battle ordered the schools closed, two days ahead of Gov. Tim Walz’s order closing schools statewide. His order required that instruction resume on March 30.
After finishing 2019-20 in distance learning, the district began 2020-21 under a hybrid of distance and in-person learning, with an all-distance learning option — the One91 Virtual Academy, which the district plans to make a permanent option.
Following state guidance based on COVID-19 case counts in communities, the district retreated to all distance learning on Nov. 30 as cases surged statewide.
Citing new state guidance, “and after consulting with our constituent COVID-19 Advisory Committee,” Battle announced Dec. 23 a return to full in-person learning for elementary students on a staggered schedule beginning Feb. 1.
She cited “a growing understanding that younger children are least impacted” by COVID-19, “ongoing concern about the academic, social and emotional losses for students during distance learning” and “the belief that our schools are the safest, most predictable space for many students to be.”
Teachers interviewed by Sun Thisweek in April said the missing element in their new ventures into distance learning was the face-to-face interaction that lets them know whether students are “getting it.”
“Schoology is a full learning platform, which means I can give my kids lessons, I can give them daily announcements, I can give them quizzes and tests, I can do most everything that I do in my classroom with the exception of human interaction and human contact,” said Edward Neill Elementary fourth grade teacher Jim Condon.
“Virtually everything I would be doing in my classroom is still happening,” said the teaching veteran of more than 25 years. “The biggest drawback, of course, is because we weren’t there, we weren’t having that interaction. That whole idea of feedback is really difficult. I have to do feedback in writing now, and I have to hope and trust they’re going to read it and it will make sense.”
Officials gave a mid-course report on distance learning during a virtual School Board meeting June 11.
There were “inequities” in instruction, according to Imina Oftedahl, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, and Rachel Gorton, instructional technology coordinator. Wi-Fi “hot spots” were added to expand internet access, and the district worked with Comcast on a sponsorship program to provide connections for some families, Gorton said.
School social workers and cultural liaisons aided the effort to get families connected, she said.
“We know that distance learning disproportionately impacted some of our students,” Gorton said.
A survey of students in kindergarten through fifth grade showed that 44 percent found distance learning mostly good and 16 percent “loved it.” Students complained of missing their friends and teachers, struggling with technology, experiencing distractions at home and not being able to ask teachers questions.
Secondary students had complaints about technology and distractions, as well as feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated. Teachers worried about trouble communicating with students, tech problems, students without internet access and “feelings of isolation,” according to a district report.
Support staff continued to provide services, from school counselors’ “virtual calming room” to telemedicine at Park Nicollet Foundation’s Diamondhead Clinic. Headway Behavioral Services, which provides mental health services in the district, switched to telemedicine. Sixty-eight percent of clients participated.
Food service was provided at the three middle schools, three child-care sites and 31 housing complexes, and through three home-delivery routes for medically fragile students, said Julie Kronabetter, director of food and nutrition services.
“Dr. Battle, you and our district have moved mountains in the last couple of months,” board Chair Abigail Alt said. “I am in awe.”
The vanishing final weeks of your senior year in high school are full of moments to savor — like being with friends in the barren school parking lot, talking from a safely distanced perch atop your car.
“It’s like a normal conversation except we’re just not in a room, we’re outside on top of our cars,” explained Burnsville High School graduating senior Savannah Christenson, who used the method to keep in touch during the pandemic.
Christenson, Sean Floersch and Ryan Mokandu were the commencement speakers for the BHS Class of 2020 and were interviewed by Sun Thisweek. Their recorded speeches were part of the virtual graduation ceremony broadcast June 5 on the district’s YouTube channel.
The Class of 2020 feels the hurt of an interrupted school year but is handling it maturely, Mokandu said.
“We understand what this whole virus has done,” Mokandu said. “We have to stay safe, protect one another. We have to get used to that happening. There’s nothing you can really do when you have orders from health officials, when they tell you don’t be in groups of more than 10, and we have a class of 600.”
Floersch said he didn’t comment in his speech on the pandemic, focusing instead on “resiliency and strength.”
“Yes, we’ve demonstrated strength over the last couple months in the virtual senior year, but there’s been a lot of other things going on in our lives,” he said. “We’ve lost a couple of classmates over the last couple of years. I’ve had cancer, and another classmate of mine has had cancer. There’s been deaths of family members galore, I feel like. It’s kind of inspiring to be able to look out and see how we got to this point even through all the hardships we’ve faced.”
Board agrees to try to sell Metcalf
Capping months of discussion, the School Board voted Oct. 22 to finalize its intentions for selling or leasing several district properties.
The district won’t make any moves unless it secures special state legislation allowing sales or lease proceeds to flow to the general fund to support school costs, according to a resolution that won unanimous board approval. Minnesota law requires districts to use such proceeds to retire building debt.
The district will try to sell all of the Metcalf Middle School property and 4 acres of outlots at Diamondhead Education Center, which it will keep. The district also aims to sell River Ridge Education Center.
It will keep M.W. Savage and Sioux Trail elementary schools and seek lease opportunities. The board voted in 2019 to close Metcalf and the two elementary schools.
District 191 teachers voted April 2 to ratify a two-year contract with salary-schedule increases of 1 percent the first year and 1.3 percent the second.
The School Board approved the contract April 16, closing a contentious round of negotiations that made 191 one of the last metro-area districts to settle its 2019-21 teacher pact.
The teachers union said the rapid onset of the COVID-19 crisis prompted the settlement.
“With the unprecedented circumstances surrounding COVID-19, it was necessary to settle our contract when we did,” Wendy Drugge, president of the 665-member Burnsville Education Association, said in an April 6 statement. “Negotiations may be over, but the members of the BEA are committed to continue the fight for the safe and welcoming schools our students deserve and better working conditions for our members.”
Negotiators were far apart in their last public proposals on Jan. 29, before going into closed mediation sessions. Teachers were asking for 2.9 percent schedule increases each year. The district was offering 0.8 percent per year.
The contract doesn’t include teacher-safety language the BEA sought for the first time.
District 191 officials finalized 2020-21 budget cuts April 9 and proclaimed a new era of uncertainty and austerity because of COVID-19.
School Board members agreed on an $8.5 million budget-balancing plan that includes savings from closing schools and raising class sizes by one student across all grade levels. The board approved the budget June 18.
Forces beyond the district’s control impede its efforts to retain teachers and other staff members of color, School Board Chair Abigail Alt said June 18.
Alt’s statement accompanied board approval of the district’s 2020-21 budget, which reflects layoffs of 52 probationary teachers and 12 tenured teachers.
The probationary teachers include Qorsho Hassan, one of 10 finalists for the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Award sponsored by Education Minnesota. The former fifth grade teacher at Gideon Pond Elementary was in her third year in the district. She’s one of the few Somali American teachers in the state and has been praised as an advocate for education equity and students and staff of color.
Hassan went on to win Teacher of the Year and is now teaching at District 196’s Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville.
Alt didn’t mention Hassan by name but said state law, labor rules and underfunding are barriers to retaining staff at a time when the staff and community are challenging the district to diversify its workforce.
Fifty-five percent of district students are minority, a 10 percent increase in the last five years, according to the district.
In 2019-20, 4.75 percent of district teachers were people of color, the district said. The layoffs claimed 4.6 full-time-equivalent positions held by teachers of color, reducing the overall number to 4.34 percent.
Floyd death hits
Superintendent Theresa Battle gave a frank, personal statement about the death of George Floyd.
Floyd’s May 25 death in the custody of Minneapolis police is “horrific and tragic” and has “impacted me both personally and professionally,” Battle said at the end of the May 28 School Board meeting.
“As a black woman,” Battle said, “I feel the generational and historical trauma of racism, genocide and bias that I and my ancestors have experienced.”
She said she reflected on the life of her great-grandmother, who was born in 1882 in Louisa County, Virginia, 30 minutes outside of Charlottesville.
“As you may recall, in 2017, neo-Nazi and white supremacists held a rally, and one of them killed Heather Heyer, who was protesting their actions,” Battle said. “So still today, with the killing of George Floyd, I am still experiencing the same racial injustice and horrors that my great-grandmother experienced throughout her life from 1882 to 1984.
“This must stop. And we must all act to make it stop.”
In her first year on the job, Superintendent Theresa Battle met or exceeded performance goals set by the School Board while successfully leading the district through a turbulent time, the board said.
Board Vice Chair Eric Miller reported June 11 on Battle’s first annual job review, which members held in closed session on May 28.
During her first year the board closed three schools, changed attendance boundaries and abruptly shifted to distance learning when the pandemic hit. Battle faced “challenges that superintendents might more typically face over the course of a decade,” Miller said in a statement.
Battle exceeded expectations for three district-specific personal goals and met expectations for four.
The board also measured Battle’s performance on 25 superintendent standards set by the Minnesota School Boards Association. Her score was 3.3 out of a possible 4.
School Board shuffle
Citing the responsibilities of a newly expanded family, School Board Member Jen Holweger announced her resignation at the board’s Oct. 8 meeting.
Suad “Sue” Said won board appointment to Holweger’s seat Dec. 10, the unanimous choice of board members. Said and Brandon Neuerburg, both of Burnsville, applied for the vacancy.
Said, a 2005 graduate of Burnsville High School, will be the board’s first Somali American member. She will serve for all of 2021. The district must hold a special election for the seat by Nov. 2. The winner will serve the rest of Holweger’s term, which ends in January 2023.
Board members DeeDee Currier and Darcy Schatz did not seek re-election Nov. 3.
Incumbent Eric Miller and newcomers Toni Conner and Anna Werb were elected in a five-way race for three seats. Also on the ballot were Said, who finished fourth, and Hodan Ahmed, another Somali American candidate.