David Wedin’s first board meeting as Milaca Public Schools’ new superintendent featured a reopening planning presentation related to COVID-19.
Wedin said information presented Monday night was delivered with the intention of helping the Milaca school board stay ahead of a fast spinning communications curve.
School districts around the state are waiting for the Minnesota Department of Education and Department of Health guidelines and recommendations for fall reopening.
That information is expected to be released no later than July 31.
Over the last few months, district officials have heard a variety of plans that involve three scenarios, Wedin said.
Those scenarios include in in-person learning for all students, hybrid learning with strict guidelines, and distance learning only.
According to Wedin, Milaca Public Schools’ reopening planning will be guided by a commitment to maintaining the health, wellness, and safety of the entire school community, and providing flexibility for at-risk students, staff, and families.
The district must remain compliant with social distancing recommendations and provide personal protective equipment (PPE) as required and respond to local, state, and federal orders while sustaining open community communication.
“There are still many unknowns,” Wedin said before walking board members through his PowerPoint presentation. “We’ve been told by the state to prepare for all three scenarios.” Milaca’s reopening planning committee is addressing operational, student learning, and communication and family engagement issues.
School officials don’t know exactly when MDE will release its reopening guidance recommendations that were initially presented in a 100-page document.
“We are hoping it’s released ahead of time,” Wedin said, referring to the week of July 27. “We still have plenty of time to address a pretty complex plan,” he added.
During the week of July 27, Gov. Tim Walz is expected to announce which of the three scenarios state schools will operate under the 2020-21 academic year.
A traditional school scenario would have students return to school with the district adhering to Centers for Disease Control guidelines to the best of its ability.
Hybrid Instruction would involve learning that would occur as a combination of in school and distance learning.
Distance learning would involve students completing teacher-assigned work remotely, similar to what occurred from March through the end of the year.
In either of the traditional school or hybrid instruction, the district has indicated families will have the option of distance learning if they are uncomfortable sending students to school. Wedin emphasized that point again Monday.
The sooner MDE releases its health plan and guidance, the better, Wedin said.
Right now, important dates in the district’s implementation timeline include having a local plan completed for review by Aug. 10 and a board presentation on Aug. 17. Staff development and training would take place Aug. 31 to Sept. 2 with a workshop week for teachers and paraprofessionals and a Sept. 3 open house.
Those dates in the planning timeline could change, Wedin said. The longer the district has to wait for Walz and the state to make its decision, the more pressure.
“Those timelines could look different,” he explained. “We are communicating and collaborating with other school districts regarding our review of fall plans.”
Wedin said the district’s recently emailed planning survey is providing important information for fall. This survey closed to the public Monday night, July 20.
Data about Internet access and home use is helping the Milaca district reassess how technology will be used. “The survey is showing we have an access disparity,” Wedin said. “The quality of available Internet is also an issue as are hot spots.”
During Monday night’s school board presentation, Wedin was careful to point out that the district’s planning effort does not include all considerations that are possible under the three reopening scenarios that will be addressed next week.
For example, it’s highly likely the district will have to address staggered bus routes and start and end times for the elementary and high school, parent pick-up and drop off times, the types of classes being offered, and the number of transitions.
Regarding food service, key issues include use of food carts and transporting lunches to classrooms, disposable trays or food containers being used, breakfast becoming “grab and go” and prepackaged foods being used with no cafeteria.
The district may have to consider or use extra staff to assist with lunch delivery and deal with the possibility of serving food to distance learning students.
Transportation could have an number of challenges, namely social distancing on bus routes, development of sanitization schedules, bus driver protection that could include masks, gloves, and sanitation materials, and possible route changes.
Facility and classroom sanitization could require cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces, no sharing of school supplies, and reexamination of cleaning schedules and practices, Wedin explained, adding the Milaca district could consider closing buildings and facilities to outside groups and activities.
Review of locker assignments, furniture needs, and all desks in a classroom facing one way could occur. Health considerations may involve screening, social distancing, hand washing stations, face coverings, and satellite space for nurses.
Schools may have to close periodically due to COVID-19 factors and be ready to revert to 100 percent distance learning. “We want to be as transparent as we can with the information we have at the time,” Wedin explained. “We are planning for multiple scenarios. We are not going to have a lot of time, but the fall survey made one thing clear: Our community wants students back in school,” he added.
During discussion, Board Member Aimee Struffert asked Wedin about this year’s Picture Night and how it might be handled.
Wedin said the district could change the logistics of that event as well as Open House activities. “We could go to two nights,” Wedin said. It can be adjusted and we can work with Josten’s on that.”
Board Member Jeff Larson asked for an update on news the Onamia School District had announced it would provide distance learning to parents requesting it. Wedin said distance learning would be allowed in any of the three scenarios.
Larson replied: “Are we [as a district] prepared if MDE and MDH list a variety of options and kick back school planning decisions to local control? That’s my suspicion.”
Wedin explained the district could not make a decision without consulting with local public health authorities. Larson added: “If they do push local control, this school board will have to get up to speed real fast.”
Wedin reiterated that the sooner the state could make and announce its decision on fall guidance, the better.
“If the announcement comes on July 31, that’s bad,” he said. “If it comes on July 27, that would be better. The later in the week it comes, the more work will be required by all parties involved.”