St. Mary’s School on pace for Sept. 1 start

ST. MARY’S SCHOOL PRINCIPAL LISA DIETER is optimistic the school’s back-to-school plan will work this fall. Photo / Per Peterson

St. Mary’s School is getting a jump on what will surely be a memorable, if not strange, school year and is pushing to make things as normal as possible for its 60 students.

While public schools will be in hybrid mode when it comes to learning this year, St. Mary’s staff and parents are all in on in-person learning. What’s more, they’re not even waiting until after Labor Day to start.

After parents responded overwhelmingly to an early start this year in a May survey, SMS will begin the 2020-21 school year on Tuesday, Sept. 1. The first week will run from that Tuesday, through Thursday.

“The education committee and I looked at the calendar, and it just seemed like starting September 8th … we were already losing out a week in September, so we decided that if the parents were willing to transport their kids the

first, second and third we would start the first week of the month,” said SMS Principal Lisa Dieter. “I’m excited to get the kids back in school, we’ve missed them so much.”

Those first few days of the new school year, Dieter said, will be geared, not toward traditional instruction time, but more toward getting the students ready for a new world inside SMS.

“The first three days, we plan on going over protocol and new procedures — make sure you’re washing your hands, this is how you do it and for how long,” Dieter said. “This will be really important.”

Busing those first three days was about the only potential obstacle facing the early start, but the school quickly came to the realization that parents were more than OK with bringing their charges to school for a week. After that, SMS students will be bused as normal as possible, with an exception. Normally, there is one bus that drops all the kids off, and one bus to pick them up in the afternoon.

“I talked to (bus garage supervisor) John Brandt, and he said, ‘We’ll probably have quite a few buses lined up, so it will be pretty much no parking up to the handicapped spots,” Dieter said. “Your parents who drop off will have to turn the corner on Morgan St. and drop off their child on the side. There will be changes, but hopefully it’s temporary.”

The TAPS busing proposal, as it stands right now, will allow for the rural families to be dropped at St. Mary’s School at 7:35 a.m., Dieter said. Rural families will board the bus in the afternoon from St. Mary’s School about 2:15 p.m. Town families will be dropped at St. Mary’s School at 8:25 a.m. and will board the afternoon buses, starting at 1:30 p.m.

A survey was sent out to the town families, asking if parents/guardians would be able to drop off their students by 7:40-7:45 a.m. each morning, which would allow all St. Mary’s students to begin their school day at approximately 7:55-8 a.m.

“If town families would be able to make arrangements to pick up their St. Mary’s students between 2:20-2:30, the student body as a whole would be able to increase their overall learning time by 75 minutes each day,” Dieter said.

There will be, of course, other changes at SMS this fall. All students (except preschoolers) will be required to have a mask on upon entering the school building, as will every staff member. The school has also ordered Plexiglass, and Dieter has already notified the Minnesota Department of Education on how many masks they will need. Dieter said the school will receive money from an Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief fund. Local education agencies will get so much money, and non-public schools will get money from that pot. As of today, there is a dispute between the federal government and the MDE as to how monies will be allocated, so when SMS will receive funding is uncertain.

“Until they decide which guidelines they are using, we won’t know,” said Dieter. “We’re kind of in this holding pattern right now to the point where we’ll probably have to be reimbursed.”

Dieter also said that students will only be able to use the bottle-filling station on the water fountains. The school has also loaded up on hand sanitizer, “and we’re going to have circles on the floor for social distancing,” Dieter said. “We still need to remind (the kids) to social distance. And you go to stores, you still see young kids without masks on, so it’s going to be a change for a lot of kids.”

The lunch routine will also look different at SMS. There will now be two separate lunch times, and students won’t be allowed to pick up their trays and get their food themselves. The only way that system would continue to work is if the kids sat behind Plexiglass screens while they eat. So this year, the teachers will go through the line and bring the trays to the students, who will be sitting two to a table.

“It’s going to be weird,” Dieter said. “But they’re still able to dump their trays after. And we have fifth- and sixth-graders help serve lunch, and they’ll still be able to do that with their hair nets on and their aprons, gloves and their mask. And we usually have fifth- and sixth-graders wash the trays and silverware and they’ll be able to do that.

“I think we’ve got some really good plans in place with protocols and safety procedures,” Dieter added.

Dieter said the school is building its game plan off a template handed down from the Diocese; that includes questions such as, “What will your routine be when the children enter your school?”

To that, Dieter said all students will have their temperatures taken in the morning and again after the lunch period with touchless thermometers. Kids will also be spaced out when outside of their classroom, including in the morning. A typical day starts with the students gathering in one group in the gym for morning readings and announcements.

“In the morning, they will line up in their grade levels, which is what they always do, but they’ll just be going toward the stage more and be spread out,” Dieter said. “I’ll dismiss them one classroom at a time.”

Dieter said there will be changes in each classroom as well. Typically, each classroom has its own classroom “library” with things like bean bags and stuffed animals, but since those are soft-surface items, they won’t be in the classrooms any longer.

“They’ll still have their book shelves, but they won’t have the designated area as it has been historically,” said Dieter. “But that’s a good thing, because we need to have that extra space to space the desks out.”

Kindergarten teacher Breann Nilius is excited to get back into the classroom and get back to some kind of semblance of normalcy.

“I’m just happy we’re getting back in the classroom with my kids,” she said. “Everybody’s getting a little crazy with being stuck at home for an extended period of time — even my own kids are excited to be back at school with their friends.”

Nilius said one of the main challenges she envisions is explaining to the younger kids why all the changes are happening and convincing them of the importance of social distancing and thorough hand-washing.

“We need to get them to understand that everything needs to be sanitized, and there’s germs, and we have to do our part,” Nilius said. “It will definitely take some getting used to on everybody’s part. I think that in time we’ll make adjustments and do what we can.”

Recess will be on a rotation system by grade, Dieter said, with separate groups allowed to play on the playground on different days. Speaking of recess, SMS will soon be home to new playground equipment that will be installed later this month. Dieter said they purchased the equipment through an online auction from another school.

• SMS is holding its parents’ meeting on Aug. 26, at which time the school will go over all its new policies and procedures.