by ALEXANDRA RETTER
With the school year drawing nearer and nearer and school reopening guidance from the state having recently arrived in districts’ hands, local schools are preparing for elementary students to learn in-person and secondary students to learn in a hybrid model of in-person learning and distance learning. However, if the number of COVID-19 cases in Winona County increases, more students may be learning both in school and at home or just at home.
Minnesota districts have a starting learning model for the upcoming school year from recently released state guidance. Schools may start only in-person, in a hybrid model or with all distance learning based on the number of COVID-19 cases in a county per 10,000 people over a two-week period. With more cases comes more recommendation to move toward hybrid or distance learning. Districts will now continue to work with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and regional centers throughout the school year to monitor the learning model that is in place and change the model if needed due to shifts in the prevalence of COVID-19.
During the two week period of July 21 though August 4, there were 56 new COVID-19 cases in Winona County. After dividing the county population by 10,000 and then dividing 56 by that number, a rate of 11.09 is found. Per state guidance, remaining between 10 and 19 cases per 10,000 residents signals in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students, and hybrid learning for all students would occur if the cases rise to between 20 and 29.
While Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) elementary students would attend school in-person if the infection rate remains steady, secondary students would spend part of each week learning at school and part of each week learning at home. Students would be split into groups. Each group would then go to school on particular weekdays and learn at home on certain weekdays. As a result, it would be difficult for elementary students to be spread out at the middle or high school, WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit noted.
WAPS surveyed parents last month. About 75 to 80 percent said they wanted their children to attend school in-person, and approximately 15 to 20 percent said they wanted their children to take part in distance learning, Freiheit explained. The results were consistent across parents of students of all ages, from elementary to high school, she said.
District staff members are working to determine how to best spread students and staff members out in WAPS’ buildings by considering factors such as schools’ square footage, desk spacing in classrooms and traffic flow management in buildings, Freiheit said.
District staff members are finding out how many students will be participating in distance learning and which teachers will be educating those students, Freiheit shared. A middle or high school teacher may have one class period in which they teach students through distance learning and other class periods in which they teach students in person, she said.
WAPS is not expecting to hire any additional staff members at this time, Freiheit noted. Rather, the district is looking to utilize current staff members creatively. Though hiring more staff members is not anticipated at this time, hiring may occur if many teachers are out on long-term leave, Freiheit added.
Classes may go outside more than they did in the past, Freiheit stated, and physical education classes will often be held outdoors.
Child care would be offered for the children of essential workers if the elementary schools shift to hybrid or distance learning, Freiheit said. Before and after school child care would be provided if the elementary school students are attending class in-person.
Before and after school child care typically takes place at the elementary schools, Freiheit explained. A space in an elementary school or the middle school could be considered for use as a child care space if the elementary schools are in the hybrid learning model.
Some truancy occurred among students during distance learning in the spring. Teachers will continue to connect with students to attempt to limit absences, Freiheit said, and distance learning will not be as “lenient as last spring.” The schedule for distance learning may be similar to a school building’s schedule, with students spending the first hour of the day in one class, the second hour of the day in another class and so forth, she said.
“From distance learning in the spring, we learned how important it is for teachers to be reaching out,” Freiheit said. “We would continue to use those kinds of strategies.”
Methods for safely transporting and providing food for students are also being established, Freiheit said.
WAPS’ goal is to have the final plan for the beginning of the school year to parents as soon as possible, Freiheit said. The district also aims to account for the number of COVID-19 cases that are documented in Winona County close to releasing the plan at least one week before it goes into effect, per state mandate.
Working with MDE and MDH throughout the school year may include gaining an understanding of how often COVID-19 rates per county will be released and how responding to any COVID-19 cases that occur in schools would take place, Freiheit said. “I imagine they’re spending a lot of time developing a very agile system so we can respond and change things quickly if we need to,” Freiheit shared.
Wearing masks, social distancing and washing one’s hands frequently will support children being back in school this year, Freiheit noted. “No matter how we feel about this whole situation, if we work together, I see us having kids in the buildings as much as possible this year,” Freiheit stated.
The WAPS Board will receive an update on the school reopening plan at its meeting this Thursday at 6 p.m.
With its location in Winona County, the Lewiston-Altura School District would also have elementary students learning in-person and secondary students learning in the hybrid model if school were to start today. Kindergarten through sixth grade would be considered elementary level, and seventh through 12th grade would be considered secondary level. The district is planning for all scenarios and anticipating that it will make a final decision within a week regarding how to start the school year, Lewiston-Altura Superintendent Gwen Carman said.
Staff members are working through how to switch between learning models as the need arises during the school year, Carman said. “Communication will be imperative,” Carman shared.
Under plans that are in the process of being finalized, students and staff members will wear face coverings. Health screening from temperature checks as people enter school buildings to self-assessment of symptoms will also take place. Regular cleaning of surfaces that are touched often will occur as well. Plans for distributing meals to students through a grab-and-go program are being determined, additionally.
Students will not be assigned lockers so congregation at lockers is avoided, Carman stated.
Secondary students would attend school in-person every three days. Some students may attend school in-person more often, depending on their access to internet at home and success with distance learning, Carman noted.
With distance learning, teachers are working to provide more live instruction than was offered in the spring and to connect with students more through tools such as Zoom.
Carman said how precisely collaboration with MDE and MDH will take place is still being analyzed.
Another school district in Winona County, the St. Charles School District, did not immediately respond to requests for comment, though under MDE’s model, the district would operate under the same state guidance as WAPS and Lewiston-Altura, since they are all public schools in Winona County, and the state uses county infection rates in determining how to guide school reopening.
State guidance also applies to charter schools. Bluffview Montessori Head of School Henry Schantzen said developing a plan is complicated at the moment. “Three weeks from now, we’re going to have to look at this data again, and it could change,” Schantzen shared of the plan with which the school will start in the fall.
Teachers will balance in-person instruction and distance learning for students who elect to learn at home, Schantzen said. If a hybrid model is ultimately the recommendation for starting the school year based on county COVID-19 case numbers, students could be broken into two groups, and students in the special education program could attend school full time, as the building is big enough to allow for that even with 50-percent occupancy restrictions that would be in place under a hybrid model, Schantzen said.
It would be logical for all local schools to have a similar plan for beginning the school year, he noted. “We’re going to have to look at what WAPS is doing and maybe Cotter a little bit, because we’re siblings between the three,” Schantzen said.
Wisconsin schools near the Winona area are also preparing for the new school year and are guided by their state’s recommendations.
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.