Students in the West Saint Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan Area school district are enthusiastic about finally being back to in-person classes, though COVID-19 protocols have made going to school much different from normal.

Observing such guidelines as wearing masks, social distancing and staying within “pods” to avoid spreading the virus, teachers, administrators and students in District 197 are adapting to new ways of doing things. Overall, most students “love being back,” said Steven Goldade, principal of Mendota Elementary School. “Socialization is so important.”

District 197
Mendota Elementary fourth-grade teacher Lisa Hockett checks in with a student in class. Photo by Brad Stauffer

On average about 65 percent of students have chosen to come back in person, said Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog. With stringent contact tracing in place, he said there has been almost no evidence of virus spread within the schools or need for quarantining.

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In addition, most teachers and other employees have received both doses of the coronavirus vaccine, due to a partnership with the Dakota County Public Health Department.

The district began welcoming back its youngest students to in-person learning in February, starting with grades preK-2 and then grades 3-4. Secondary students returned to classes in a half-day hybrid model beginning with grades 7-8 and 10-12 near the end of February, and grades 9 and 5-6 in early March.

The School Board recently decided that following spring break all of the district’s secondary schools will switch to in-person learning four days a week. The change will begin on April 7 for grades 5-8 and on April 8 for grades 9-12. Wednesdays will be flex days to provide extra prep time for teachers.

Students will continue to have the option of full-time distance learning. At last count, about 40 percent of Sibley students were opting to continue learning from home. “Distance learning has challenges, but we are positioned well. Our students work really hard,” said Sibley associate principal Scott Karlen.

Overall, most students “love being back,” said Steven Goldade, principal of Mendota Elementary School. “Socialization is so important.”

Those attending Sibley in person will have some of their classes, including science, music and family consumer science, held in newly remodeled areas. Two new gyms and a fitness center will be completed by the end of summer, while a new aquatic center opened last fall. The improvements are among the districtwide projects funded by a $117 million referendum that was approved by voters in 2018.

About 75 percent of students at Mendota Elementary are now back in the classroom, according to Goldade. “Maybe two of 300 switched back to distance learning,” he said.

Since in-person classes resumed on a staggered schedule in early February, three classrooms had to be quarantined due to positive tests for COVID-19, traced to sources outside of school, Goldade said.

Lunch periods are now spread out so that there are fewer than 50 students instead of 100 in the cafeteria at one time. Each lunch item is individually packaged. Gym classes limit the number of students to between 20 and 26, and social distancing is observed.

Students stay in their assigned pods at recess, which is now limited to 15 minutes outside. “We’re fortunate to have a big playground,” Goldade said.

Three different areas on Somerset Elementary’s playground allow for groups of students to stay in their pods. Lunch is eaten in the classrooms. No classrooms there have had to quarantine, said principal Libby Huettl.

As of now, the district is planning to have all eight of its schools open for full-time classes this fall. “I expect and hope we can do that, but COVID doesn’t always follow our plans,” Olson-Skog said. “We continue to be flexible and resilient in the face of ever-changing realities.”

— Carolyn Walkup

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