With less than two months left in the school year, the Saint Paul Public Schools will welcome back middle school and high school students to the classroom on April 14, ending close to a calendar year of distance learning for students in grades 6-12.

Students may choose to continue learning from home via the internet, and as of March 22 about 5,600 of the school district’s close to 18,000 middle and high school students have opted to remain home. Those returning to school will receive 41/2 hours of in-person instruction and two hours of asynchronous distance learning from home on Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays, all students will have a day of distance learning.

Saint Paul assistant superintendent Josh Delich said the shorter in-person school day will allow teachers to adequately prepare course materials for both in-person and distance learning. It will also facilitate other logistics, such as social distancing on school buses and office hours when teachers will be available to work with students individually or in small groups, according to Delich. Teachers will be able to use the same lesson plans for in-person and online classes, he said. However, they will not be required to link distant students to a live feed of the in-person classes, a facet that has been criticized by parents.

back to school
Highland Park Middle School head engineer Kevin Olson sets up a HEPA air circulator as custodian Ray Hessler disinfects one of the classrooms with an electrostatic sprayer in preparation for the return of students on April 14. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Carol Maurer, the mother of two district students, will be keeping her sophomore home for distance learning due to health concerns in the family. She said that while the return to in-person learning will benefit most students, those opting to stay home are being short-changed with an asynchronous model that minimizes live instruction. “Basically, there’s nothing that equates to what students who are returning to in-person learning are receiving,” she said.

Todd Marder, the Saint Paul Federation of Educators treasurer, helped negotiate the terms under which teachers will return to the classroom. “Educators can choose to live-stream their lessons from the classroom,” he said. “But we pushed back against that being a requirement because the district is offering no additional support, resources or training to ensure that it’s effective. We’ve heard about the toll that concurrent in-person and online teaching has had on educators around the country.”

“We’re not going to make up all of the ground that’s been lost in just this last quarter of the year, but we have to start somewhere.”

– Ramsey Middle School
Principal Teresa Vibar

District administrators in a March 10 family forum said that while some may prefer real-time classes, the asynchronous model offers more flexibility and more opportunity for students to engage in class work. “(Students) can access the lessons at a time that works for them, whether they’re caring for younger children, working or doing other family activities,” said Craig Anderson of the district’s Office of Teaching and Learning.

The schools have welcomed the challenge of providing a safe environment for students’ return. At Ramsey Middle School, staff have adorned the hallways with directional arrows for student foot traffic. Signs are scattered throughout the building reminding all of social distancing guidelines. Excess furniture has been removed. Stockings will be distributed to band members to cover the horns of their instruments.

Governor Tim Walz’s Safe Learning Plan recommends 6 feet of distance between students and staff, or 3 feet when that is not possible. Ramsey’s staff have had to get creative. With larger class sections, the lessons will be presented in larger and more open spaces.

The return to in-person instruction represents a turning point for building strong relationships with students this school year, according to Ramsey principal Teresa Vibar. Four-and-a-half hours per day is better than none, she said. However, even six hours per day could not undo the academic damage caused by the pandemic over the past year, she added. “We’re not going to make up all of the ground that’s been lost in just this last quarter of the year, but we have to start somewhere,” Vibar said.

Incidence of COVID remains low

The Saint Paul district’s elementary schools returned to in-person learning in February, and the incidence of COVID-19 infections has remained relatively low. In the second week of November, while students were all still distance learning, the district recorded a high of 49 positive cases among staff and students in grades PreK-12. There were totals of 19 positive cases at the end of January, 25 positive cases in mid-February and 10 positive cases in mid-March.

Superintendent Joe Gothard said on March 9 that he was confident that all district staff will soon have access to at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. District administrators are urging families to report any COVID-19 cases. That will allow for contact tracing and the strategic closing of classrooms, grade levels or full buildings should the need arise.

Saint Paul School Board member Jessica Kopp, who is the mother of a returning middle-schooler, said she has detected fewer concerns among parents in recent weeks when compared to the weeks before the elementary schools’ return to in-person learning in February. She said that may have something to do with the lower COVID-19 case numbers in the state and the greater availability of vaccines. However, she added, “I feel our responsibility as a district and as a board is to provide appropriate and compassionate options.”

— Casey Ek

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