The Saint Paul Public Schools welcomed its first students back to the classroom on February 1 with in-person instruction for grades K-2. Students in grades 3-5 were scheduled to return to in-person instruction on February 16, after this issue of the Villager went to press. All told, 61 percent of elementary students have opted to return, with the remaining 39 percent choosing to continue learning from home through an internet link to their classrooms.

After two weeks in the classroom, students and educators continued to adapt to the challenges of COVID safety. At Randolph Heights Elementary School, 348 S. Hamline Ave., 75 percent of the students are back in school. School staff are keeping a close eye on them to ensure they are abiding by the floor stickers that dictate social distancing and the direction of foot traffic in the hallways.

With the new restrictions, Randolph Heights’ narrow corridors allow for one-way traffic only, according to principal Timothy Williams. He and his staff have had to come up with creative ways for moving about the building. Instead of students traveling from one classroom to another, they remain in place while the teachers change classrooms, thereby avoiding close contact.

back to school
Randolph Heights principal Timothy Williams greets a student arriving for classes during the first week of in-person learning at the elementary school at 348 S. Hamline Ave. Photo by Casey Ek

“Overall, the kids are getting the new rituals and routines down pretty well,” Williams said.

Meal times at Randolph Heights have been particularly challenging, Williams said. During breakfast and lunch, students are divided into two seating areas to ensure social distancing. Meals are served in plastic containers, and the salad bar is no longer an option. The whole process takes significantly longer with the various lunch periods spaced out between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Busing is available for Randolph Heights students, but many parents choose to transport their children themselves. While that has led to increased traffic congestion around the school, it is a welcome problem, Williams said, and just one example of how families have been willing to grapple with the challenges the pandemic has thrown at them.

Parents “have been on a bit of a roller coaster as well as the school staff,” Williams said. “But everybody has had a really good attitude about it.”

As of February 8, Randolph Heights had not reported a single positive COVID-19 test, but in the event of one, contact tracing will be employed to stem the spread of the virus. Outside of each classroom are sign-in sheets to help with that effort. As of last week, all but two of the teachers at Randolph Height had had at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Williams said.

The Saint Paul Federation of Educators was hoping to have all of its members vaccinated before the return to in-person instruction. A total of 2,049 vaccinations were made available to teachers and staff on January 25, and additional vaccines were expected to become available soon for the rest of the district’s 7,000 employees.

The Saint Paul school district is keeping track of the number of positive COVID-19 tests, in addition to the reports of COVID-19 symptoms and close contacts, among students and staff. No distinction is made between students and staff who are remaining at home and those who are back in the schools. However, during the week of January 31-February 6, 264 reports were received and 20 tested positive for COVID. For more information, visit spps.org/coviddashboard.

The response to a case of COVID-19 will vary from school to school, according to Mary Langworthy, the district’s director of health and wellness. “Every situation will look different when we have a positive case,” she said. Langworthy and a team of nurses will assess the proper response through a voluntary COVID-19 questionnaire and determine risks on a case-by-case basis, she added.

In a public forum just prior to the reopening of the elementary schools, Saint Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said families should prepare to be flexible. The district, he said, is ready to return whole classrooms, school buildings or grade levels to distance learning should the need arise. While COVID case numbers in Ramsey County will inform district decisions, there is room for nuance.

“There could be a time with very high COVID numbers in the community, and you might have schools that don’t have any reported cases,” Gothard said. “You could also have a very low number in the community but have a school reporting cases.”

The response to a case of COVID-19 will vary from school to school, according to Mary Langworthy, the district’s director of health and wellness. “Every situation will look different when we have a positive case,” she said. Langworthy and a team of nurses will assess the proper response through a voluntary COVID-19 questionnaire and determine risks on a case-by-case basis, she added.

The school district will begin offering in-person support for students in grades 6-12 beginning February 22 at the students’ middle or high school. This date was selected because the COVID-19 case rate for Ramsey County has remained below 30 for every 10,000 residents for two consecutive weeks.

The in-person support is optional. Students who choose it will be assigned a particular day and time. Information about in-person support scheduling, transportation, meals, COVID-19 safety measures and other details were expected to be sent out by the schools the week of February 15. For information, visit spps.org/secondarysupport.

When and if middle and high school students will return to the classrooms full-time is still up in the air. Student performance as a whole during the months of distance learning has suffered the most at the secondary school level. In response to “the continuing challenges of distance learning,” the district announced that all high school students who have received C’s or D’s on report cards will be offered the option of receiving a passing P grade instead. That policy is intended to soften the effects of distance learning on students’ grade point averages. It will remain in place as long as students are in distance learning.

— Casey Ek

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