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Daunting logistics convince board to open year with distance learning

By Frank Jossi

The Saint Paul School Board voted 5-1 on August 5 to approve Superintendent Joe Gothard’s recommendation and open the new school year on September 8 with all students taking classes from home via the Internet. However, school district officials held out hope for a return to in-person instruction later this fall if the risk of COVID-19 infection abates.

Gothard and his staff have been working with the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education on a safe way to reopen the schools. A recent increase in COVID cases statewide combined with a lack of classroom space for social distancing and the prospect of increased costs persuaded district officials to opt for all distance learning, he said.

Gothard told the School Board he would reevaluate the situation as the school year progresses and announce on September 25 or October 14 whether or not the school district is ready to fully reopen or at least partially reopen with a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. An announcement on September 25 would address a possible reopening on October 19 following the four-day MEA weekend. An announcement on October 14 would address a possible reopening on November 16, the first day of the winter term.

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In a practice run, custodian John Washington disinfects a classroom set up for social distancing if and when in-person instruction returns to Jie Ming Academy in Highland Park. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The amount of precision necessary to effectively plan a hybrid schedule is incredible in a district like ours,” Gothard said.

School Board member Steve Marchese, who cast the sole vote against the resolution for distance learning, proposed an amendment that would encourage the district to create optional in-person learning opportunities for families struggling with distance learning. Those options would be helpful for students in special education or English Language Learner programs for whom distance learning is especially difficult, he said.

“In this environment, with everyone’s circumstances being so different, I felt like the district should make available limited options to those families,” Marchese said. According to him, offering in-school teaching for a select number of students could provide the district with guidance on how to return to broader in-person instruction at a later date.

Reopening the schools to in-person instruction with the necessary safety precautions would be costly, even with a hybrid approach, according to Gothard. School buildings and buses are limited to 50 percent capacity under Governor Tim Walz’s COVID-19 guidelines, he said, and just one quarter of the classrooms in the district’s middle and high schools could accommodate students with the required social distancing. Elementary schools would require an additional 1,200 staff members for a full reopening and an additional 300 to 400 staff members for hybrid instruction, he said.

“The amount of precision necessary to effectively plan a hybrid schedule is incredible in a district like ours,” Gothard said.

Another problem involves transportation. School buses were used to bring food to low-income students learning from home last spring, Gothard said. Under a hybrid learning model, buses would be needed to transport students to and from school while also delivering meals to the many other students who are learning from home.

The school district has promised several improvements to the distance learning model that was used last spring. The new approach, called Distance Learning 2.0, will provide instruction that is more personal, consistent, robust and engaging, Gothard said. Though few specifics were offered on how the district will do that, academic support centers will be available in schools throughout the city, according to him. Gothard has also promised refinements in attendance taking, grading expectations, the number of assignments given in a day or a week and the introduction of more synchronous instruction.

Teachers and students will be better prepared for distance learning this fall, he said. According to him, they will have all of the technology they need, and schools will have additional staff on hand to support students remotely.

Many volunteers and retired teachers contacted the district last spring offering to assist with distance learning. Gothard said he was not able to enlist their help, but this fall he plans to make use of that help.

When deciding how students can eventually return to in-person instruction, Gothard said he wants flexibility. One grade or the pre-kindergarten and elementary grades may return first with other grades to follow. “We don’t want to box ourselves in,” he said. The size of individual schools will play a role in the decision, since social distancing will remain in place and not many classrooms have enough room to accommodate that.

For Gothard, the situation is far from ideal. COVID creates the kind of social distance and isolation that detracts from the sense of community that schools build, he said. “But I remain hopeful, optimistic and energized to make this the best it can be for our students, family and staff,” he added.

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