Princeton Public Schools has been fairly silent during the last three weeks regarding 2020-21 school planning communications as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. 

Superintendent Ben Barton said there’s a good reason for that. “We’ve been working,” Barton explained, referring a taskforce of 80 stakeholders who have been meeting since June 17.

This group is made up of staff members from all levels of the ISD 477 organization, and is broken into five subcommittees.

These subcommittees will focus on planning in the areas of Health & Safety, Student Learning, Climate & Culture, Operations, and Communications.

The task force will create plans based upon three educational scenarios: in person/traditional school, distance learning, or a hybrid blend of both.

Detailed communications on how school will be held this fall will be shared with families no later than the week of Aug. 17, the district has stated.

This will give Princeton school officials time to finalize their fall plans once guidelines are published by the Minnesota Department of Education at the end of July.

The district is committed to opening school for all students on Sept. 8. However, Barton said the district is unable to finalize plans for each grade level getting additional state guidance, which will be shared during the last week of July.

MDE has indicated it will provide requirements, recommendations, and guidance to school districts the week of July 27.

Guidance will largely be based on recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control, Gov. Tim Walz, and the current status of COVID-19 at that time.

MDE recommendations to schools released earlier this summer is providing school districts with the following guidance associated with three scenarios:

Scenario 1: Return all students to school buildings following the most current CDC and MDH guidelines;

Scenario 2: Return students to school buildings implementing a hybrid model following the most current CDC and MDH guidelines;

Scenario 3: No students return to school buildings. Implement a distance learning model.

Task force subgroups will meet as needed to get organized, do research, and mobilize prior to official guidance from the MDE, the MDH, and the CDC.

A large group will get back together periodically to check in with subgroups and get updates. Working subgroups will intensify their meeting time the week of July 27, and be completed by Aug. 14, 2020.

Barton confirmed a final decision of how school will be held this fall will be shared with families the week of Aug. 17.

This will give the district time to finalize plans once guidelines are published by the Minnesota Department of Education at the end of July.

A recently emailed edition of Tiger Times is designed to give parents everything they need to know and contains important document hyperlinks, Barton said. It contains a link to a survey asking parents need to fill out, a list of guiding principles, and a link to a district webpage filled with key information updates.

“We know that our families are anxious, and that [COVID-19] is a becoming a political issue that’s polarizing our society,” Barton said. “For the most part, parents have been patient. No matter what we do, there are going to be people mad at us. We just need to stay true to our mission and our values,” he added.

“They keep saying the week of July 27,” Barton said. “I’m getting a sense that MDE will get its decision out that Monday. They might get it out sooner. Most superintendents and districts that I’m talking to feel like there’s a high likelihood of some form of hybrid plan. That’s going to be the most complex plan by far.”

Barton explained that MDE’s definition of hybrid would include 50 occupancy of school buildings, meaning a certain number of students would return to brick-and-mortar surroundings. “We are exploring options that would allow us to get our pre-kindergarten through grades three and four in school every single day.”

However, doing so would mean breaking down class sizes to 13 to 14 students Barton said, adding that would mean supporting, non-classroom teachers would have to take classroom assignments.

“We would have to move some grades into other buildings, with the whole idea that our younger students need more adult direction than our older students. That’s just one possible option,” Barton said.

Princeton district staff and the fall planning task force will continue to explore out-of-the box alternatives to providing educational services this fall, he added.

“Our district has more than 500 employees,” Barton said. “Right now, to protect them, we are ordering different types of personal protective equipment (PPE). We are doing that because we don’t know what the exact requirements will be.”

According to Barton, protective gear, and the possible inclusion of face masks in schools as a state-mandated requirement, could lead to more polarization.’

“Masks are an extremely hot button with people” he said. “At this point, it’s been a combination of trying to prepare ourselves, get organized, and get mobilized.”

Barton said parents and district staff need to take time to recharge their batteries.

“In about three or four weeks, we are going to need people operating at 110%,” he said. “We need to take a deep breath while getting prepared for what’s next.”

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