District recommends keeping kids home until risk of infection lessens

By Frank Jossi

It appears that for the 36,000 students in the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS), going back to school this fall will be a return to the distance learning they experienced last spring when COVID-19 closed all district schools for in-person classes.

Although Governor Tim Walz has given school districts across the state the discretion to decide how best to reopen, SPPS administrators are recommending at least starting the year with distance learning.

“The leading recommendation is that SPPS start the school year with distance learning for all students,” the school district stated in a letter to parents on its website. “We are seeking the approval of a (School Board) resolution that will provide Superintendent Joe Gothard the powers to exercise the learning scenarios SPPS will implement during a pandemic. The resolution will shape how a successful 2020-21 reopening moves forward, including a presentation of information that will be shared during next week’s Committee of the Board meeting.”

The school district has been working with state health and education officials on a reopening plan. Calling the new approach Distance Learning 2.0, the district said the remote learning this fall would be more robust.

“Distance Learning 2.0 will be better than what you experienced this spring,” the letter to district parents stated. “We will be providing more personalized experiences, more same time (synchronous) learning, more time for students to collaborate with their peers and more support every step of the way. Our lessons will be designed in a similar way to create consistent experiences at individual schools and across the district.”

Saint Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard

The Saint Paul School Board discussed school reopening plans on August 1, but postponed a vote on the matter until Wednesday, August 5. Gothard was planning a virtual town hall meeting with SPPS families on Thursday, August 6, to present more information on plans for the upcoming school year.

As required by the Minnesota Department of Health, the school district was presented with three options for reopening: in-person classes, a hybrid of in-person and distance learning and distance learning only. District administrators told the School Board in July that it would likely opt for the hybrid model where half of the students have in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other half on Wednesdays and Thursdays and all students learn remotely on Fridays.

The direction Walz provided for school districts was to base their decision on the number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents in their respective county. Ramsey County’s rate, while lower than Hennepin County’s, continues to climb. The Minneapolis Public Schools said last week that they, too, would likely begin the school year with distance learning.

SPPS administrators will collaborate with the state’s Department of Education and Department of Health on any opportunity to safely introduce in-person instruction as the school year progresses. In its statement, the school district said, “dependent on the number of COVID-19 cases in Ramsey County, SPPS will look at introducing hybrid or in-person learning later this fall.”

Several private schools in neighborhoods served by the Villager have drawn up plans for in-person classes based on advice from state officials. They intend to introduce such measures as small-group learning, limited movement in buildings, required masking, social distancing, varying arrival and departure times and aggressive cleaning as ways to safely provide some level of in-person instruction.

Walz’s 21-page Safe Learning Plan encourages flexibility, allowing school districts to transition from one kind of instruction to another should a COVID-19 outbreak occur. The governor referred to the “localized, data-driven approach” as “a starting point” and “not written in stone.” Districts have the discretion to determine, based on infection trends, which changes they may have to adopt. Schools, even within the same county, could adopt different approaches, Walz said.

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers and Education Support Professionals have advocated for distance learning until their schools have more infection prevention measures in place. In a recent survey by the state teachers’ union Education Minnesota, about half of the 20,000 teachers who responded preferred all distance learning until more safety precautions are put in place. A poll of SPPS families found that only 26 percent preferred all distance learning for their kids.

Several private schools in neighborhoods served by the Villager have drawn up plans for in-person classes this fall based on advice from state officials. They intend to introduce such measures as small-group learning, limited movement in buildings, required masking, social distancing, varied arrival and departure times and aggressive cleaning as ways to safely provide some level of in-person instruction.

Among the schools that are drawing up such plans are Saint Paul Academy, Cretin-Derham Hall, Visitation, Saint Thomas Academy and Nativity.

Saint Paul Academy plans to mix in-person classes with independent study at its Upper School, holding in-person classes four days a week and setting aside the fifth day for independent learning that could include meeting with teachers. SPA’s middle school will follow a similar schedule. The lower school will offer distance learning.

Visitation and Saint Thomas Academy plan to open with in-person classes five days a week for all but those students who prefer distance learning. Saint Thomas headmaster Kelby Woodard said the school has in place many protective measures and will stress that students stay home if they are sick.

Adopting extraordinary measures to keep students safe may be easier for STA than other schools because it has smaller class sizes and a large campus, Woodard said. However, the pandemic has led the school to increase the size of its faculty to ensure that classes continue if teachers fall ill, he added.

The 2020-21 school year may be a rollercoaster ride for all concerned, something Minnesota’s governor could appreciate. “It’s going to be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” said Walz, the only governor in the U.S. with a professional background as a K-12 teacher.

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