Schools anxiously await update on 2020-21 school year

By Per Peterson

Will students get to walk through the school doors in September? Will distance learning return? Or will students and staff see a combination of the two for the 2020-21 school year?

There are more questions than answers as to what the upcoming academic year will look like, but for now, Tracy Area Public Schools Supt. Chad Anderson is holding out hope that normalcy will return within the halls of Tracy schools — at least some level of normalcy.

Anderson said at Monday’s District No. 2904 School Board meeting that there are many caveats to what the school year will look like if, indeed, students are allowed to return: Will the hallways have to be divided to help promote social distancing? Will masks be mandated for students and/or staff? Will band and choir students be forced to practice outdoors only?

“It could look different,” he said. “These are things we have to talk about.

“We have a lot of things to consider. I’m optimistic and hopeful we’ll be back in school, but we need to be prepared just in case something happens and we need to shift gears on the fly. We need to have our plans ready.”

The Minnesota Department of Health, in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education, has issued planning guides to all schools for the 2020-21 school year. They have developed planning guidance for three scenarios for the upcoming school year; school and district administrators are directed to develop three contingency plans to prepare for the 2020-21 school year using these scenarios:

Scenario 1: In-person learning for all students. In this planning scenario, schools should create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but will not be held strictly to enforcing 6 feet of social distancing during primary instructional time in the classroom.

Scenario 2: Hybrid model with strict social distancing and capacity limits. In this planning scenario, schools must limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on transportation vehicles to 50% maximum occupancy. Sufficient social distancing with at least 6 feet between people must occur at all times. If distancing cannot be achieved in a space or on a transportation vehicle, the number of occupants must be reduced. Schools must also include plans for contactless pick-up and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days that students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers. This scenario may be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional, or statewide level. Scenario 2 may also be implemented within a school if they experience clusters of cases within a classroom or the school.

“This would be the tricky one,” Anderson said. “We would bring kids back, but we’d have to adhere to 50% maximum capacity, we’d have to adhere to all social distancing — how would that look? Honestly, I don’t know.”

Scenario 3: Distance learning only. This scenario may be implemented if local, regional, or statewide COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require the suspension of in-person learning. The requirements in this guidance regarding in-person protections would not apply to the general school community, as students and staff would be utilizing distance learning and would not be gathering in groups on school grounds. However, schools may be open to provide emergency child care or other functions.

“If we do that and it has to be for the long haul, we’re going to have to be much more structured, as far as having regular schedules for the kids every day, as far as meeting with teachers and classes,” Anderson said. “We would have to make sure it’s very consistent.”

Final direction will be given to schools during the week of July 27. The local administrative team met on June 22 to talk about each scenario and concluded that each scenario will take significant planning. A “20-21 school year contingency planning team” involving all local stakeholders will be developed soon as the school district prepares for multiple scenarios. One of the options would be to implement some kind of modified schedule, but no definite plans are in place as of now.

Anderson hopes schools aren’t put in a one-size-fits-all situation, because larger school districts would have certain challenges that smaller ones don’t face. He said he doesn’t want to see students in Minnesota lose out on things like fall sports, especially considering the potential that other states might choose to go ahead with school and thus be able to offer extra-curriculars.

“There’s a lot of schools that could lose a lot of population, especially with the seniors,” he said.

There is also the potential, he said, that if school does return as usual, there might be some parents who choose not to send their kids back for safety reasons. If that happens, he said, the district will continue to accommodate those students through distance learning. There might also be staffing issues if some teachers err on the side of caution and decide they don’t want to return to the classroom in the fall.

Board chair Rod Benson said he has fielded a number of calls from parents expressing their desire to have school start in the fall and asking what they can do to help ensure that it will happen.

“There are folks that want to express their support” for opening schools back up, Benson said.

Anderson responded by saying he’s heard the same from parents to whom he has spoken.

The first academic day at TAPS is Sept. 8.

See this week’s Headlight Herald for more on this article.