A back-to-school back-and-forth

After a two-and-a-half hour discussion at the District No. 2904 School Board meeting Monday, Tracy Area Public Schools students will be returning to the classroom this fall — just not necessarily at the same location. With input from Ann Orren of Southwest Minnesota Health and Human Services, and from administration, and teachers present, the board weighed many options to open school this fall. After lengthy discussion, the board approved a resolution to start school on Sept. 8 with Tracy Area Elementary School going all-day, every day in its building, and Tracy Area High School starting in a hybrid model. However, that hybrid model approved by the board for the students still included school all-day, every day for Tracy Area High School, with grades 7, 8 and 9 being taught at alternative locations throughout Tracy.

“We’re going to put safety first for all our students while doing our best as the board directed to keep everybody in school all day every day, Supt. Chad Anderson said.

As of Aug. 1, Lyon county has a 10.45 COVID-19 case rate per 10,000 residents. With the guidelines presented by Gov. Walz on July 30, with 10-20 cases, TAPS would qualify for in person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.

“If we qualify under the health guidelines to be in-person for elementary, I’m going to be a staunch advocate here,” board member Ben Ludeman said. “Governor Walz gave us parameters, whether we agree with them or not, he gave us parameters and we meet the parameters, we meet the criteria. That means we use it to our advantage. If the priority is we want our kids in school as much as we can, then we have to utilize what we can through the parameters we’re given.”

The original hybrid model for the high school had 10th, 11th and 12th grade split into two groups that came to school two days on and two days at home with a distance learning rotation, while the 7th, 8th and 9th grades would

come to school every day but be kept in smaller class sizes.

The distance learning model was a concern for board members.

“As a parent and a board member, we see the frustrations of distance learning,” Ludeman said. “We see our kids sitting at home alone on a computer for six hours a day. In my mind, it teaches our kids how to be good cheaters, not good learners. They Google answers instead of finding help and having the guidance of a teacher behind them. From the parent speaking, and the parents I’ve talked to, they want to do everything in our creative power to get the kids in school every day. That may mean making some adjustments.

Another overwhelming concern of the board was the day-to-day contact with the staff and other students and to cover not only the educational needs of the students but the social and emotional needs as well.

“We are underestimating the social and mental health of the kids,” Ludeman said. “They are resilient, they are unbelievably resilient, but keeping them away from their friends and splitting them into A-L and M-Z, and you have a good friend that is a D and a good friend that is a W who will never see each other. I know it’s not a learning issue, but it is an issue. If we have to go to two days on and two days off, we’d be fine, but I really want to push us to try and do better.”

With the approved resolution, TAES will follow the in-person learning model. The school will create as much physical space as possible between students and teachers during the day, however it may not always be 6 feet. Students and staff will be wearing face coverings at all times in the building, and to create more space for the students, breakfast will be grab-and-go and picked up in the hallway, with the students eating in their classroom. For lunch and recess, one class at a time will have recess. The students will exit out the breezeway doors and enter in the first-grade doors. There will only be two grades in the gym for lunch at a time and they will be seated on opposite sides of the gym with as much physical spacing as they can provide.

With the approved hybrid model for TAHS, students will be using block scheduling. One day, students would have periods 1-4 and the next, periods 5-8 would be taught. The 7th, 8th and 9th-grade students would be housed at alternative locations to open space at the high school. With the hybrid model, the school must maintain 6 feet between desks and can only have 50% occupancy in the classrooms. In addition, students in band must maintain a distance of 8 feet when playing an instrument, and students in choir must maintain a distance of 12 feet when singing. Students and staff will wear face coverings while in the building.

Students who are at alternative locations will be brought meals. For the students at the high school, 12th grade will be dismissed five minutes early to allow students to get their lunch and be seated before grades 11 and 10 are excused. Extra seating will be added to the courtyard and gym stage so students are 6 feet apart while eating. Chairs will have a red “X” that signify where students cannot sit.

While the board approved how school will start for the 2020-2021 school year, the start and end time for the school day has yet to be determined. As Orren explained, if any part of the school is in hybrid learning, which the high school currently is, then transportation has to be at 50% capacity. Currently, TAPS is looking at running bus routes twice in order to stay under capacity, starting with the out-of-town kids. Once the out-of-town kids have been dropped at the school, the in-town kids would be picked up. At the end of the day, in-town students would be excused first so buses can drop off and then pick up country kids. The reasoning behind dropping off the town kids first followed by the out-of town-route is to get all students home in the shortest time frame.

The school on Tuesday sent a survey to all parents to determine their transportation desires. If parents are willing to drive their students to school, the bus routes will be shorter and will potentially allow for more instructional time. Under the current route plan presented to the school board Monday, TAPS would need to shorten the school day to run the bus routes twice.

“All parents will need to reply to the survey by Wednesday, August 19, so we can make plans,” Anderson said. “If parents do not respond to the survey, the district will be reaching out to them regarding school attendance and transportation so we can plan. We will be asking all parents if they have the ability to transport their students to school (to do so) if possible, because this will help us meet the capacity limits on our buses.”

An action committee was formed to monitor the number of cases in the county and area and make decisions for the school. The committee will be comprised of administration, board members Rod Benson (board chair) and Jody Bauer with consultation of Orren. Numbers of cases in the county are released each Thursday, so the action committee will meet weekly to monitor the changes. If the numbers allow or if there are direct changes to the learning plan, the committee will give as much notice as possible to the staff and parents.  If the numbers increase and TAES is required to go to hybrid learning, TK, Kindergarten and 1st grade would remain in their classrooms at TAES. Second grade would be moved to the VMC and the Tracy Library basement. They would utilize the room above the police station, half of the VMC gym and the meeting room at the library for class. The second side of the gym would be used for recess. Third grade would be moved to Tracy Lutheran Church. All students would be in the church basement and recess would be held at Central Park. Fourth grade would move to Tracy Alliance Church in its gym area. Recess would be held at their park. Fifth- and sixth-grade students would remain at TAES, however, fifth grade would be split into three sections and use classrooms at the school, while sixth grade would be in two sections in the TAES gym. With the hybrid model, all students would have lunch in their classrooms for TAES.

If TAES switched to the hybrid model, the seventh, eighth and ninth grades would move back to the high school for all-day, every day block scheduling. The students in 10th, 11th and 12th grades would move to an “A” “B” schedule. The “A” students would attend in person classes for two days (blocks 1-4 on day one and blocks 5-8 on day two), while group “B” would watch the class in distance learning. They would then be flipped and group “B” would attend for two days, while group “A” would use distance learning. TAHS will also continue their Ramp-Up program during hybrid learning, too. The groups would be divided by last name — Blue Group (group A) A-L, Red Group (group B) M-Z.

If the number of positive COVID cases forces the school to move to distance learning, TAES will use packets for kindergarten. First graders will be given iPads, while second through sixth grade will use Chromebooks. Students in first through fourth grade would have daily Zoom meetings, with times determined if distance learning is needed. Students in fifth and sixth grade will have online classes using Google Classroom from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily. Each grade will also have some small group and individual zooms with students to aide in learning.

For TAHS students in distance learning, students will use block scheduling similar to the hybrid learning. Attendance will be taken for each class and the classes are scheduled for 90 minutes each. Each period will start with a Zoom meeting. Instruction may not happen during the entire 90 minutes, but the teacher will be available to that class during that time to help the students. Attendance will also be taken during study hall and teachers will be available during that time. Distance learning will run from 8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Monday through Thursday and will start at 8:10 a.m. on Fridays for Ramp-Up.

If parents are not comfortable with their student returning to school in any in person format, TAPS has partnered with ‘Educere” to provide ready made digital content for teaching and learning of the basic core classes. If parents choose the virtual academy option, they will be required to commit to that choice for the entire semester. These classes will not be taught by TAPS teachers, however, students who choose virtual academy with “Educere” will be TAPS students and can participate in all TAPS activities. If families choose to open enroll their child in an alternative online academy, the student will not be allowed to participate in TAPS activities.

In addition to passing the resolution to start the school year, the board approved the COVID-19 face-covering policy., which requires all employees, students in grades TK-12 and other persons (including visitors, guest, contractors, etc.) to wear face coverings in classrooms, preschool, childcare settings and other indoor areas, as well as outdoor areas where a physical distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained. The policy includes anyone riding on school transportation vehicles. A student in TK through eighth grade may wear a face shield in the classroom if a mask is problematic, but a mask will be required for hallways, lunch line, etc. A teacher of any grade level may wear a face shield when wearing a face covering may impede the educational process.

Staff, students and others present in the school building or district office may temporarily remove their face coverings when engaging in classroom activities conducted outdoors where a distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained, when engaging in indoor physical activity where the level of exertion makes wearing a face covering difficult, when receiving nursing, medical or personal care services that cannot be performed while wearing a mask and to eat or drink. Staff are allowed to temporarily remove masks if they are working alone in their offices, classrooms, vehicles other areas that have no person-to-person contact.

If students do not comply with the mask policy, they may be subject to discipline or removal from school property. Students unwilling to participate in in-person or hybrid learning in compliance with the mask policy will be offered distance learning.

In other news, the board …

• The board voted to limit junior high volleyball and football to intramurals only with no competitions or games against other schools in a 5-1 decision. Bauer was the dissenting vote.

• Doria Drost was hired as the fall play director. The fall play this year will be performed digitally or to a limited crowd.