Mora Public Schools Superintendent Dan Voce knows one thing for certain about the upcoming school year: “it won’t be the same.”
Leaders at Mora and Ogilvie public school districts have been furiously planning, calculating and thinking creatively to figure out ways to provide a safer educational environment to teachers, staff, students and their families this fall.
It is no easy feat.
“It’s definitely a challenge,” said Voce. “It has been innovative, creative and outside the box —this is going to be school like we never knew it before.”
The schools won’t be announcing final plans for how school will function until mid-August. Even then, school function could change at any time based on the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases discovered locally.
Safe Learning Plan
On Thursday, July 30, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced the state’s guidance for Minnesota public schools called the “Safe Learning Plan for 2020-21.”
Voce said he felt the state’s guidance provided “flexibility but also some consistent guidelines.”
Minnesota school districts are required to have complete plans for three different learning scenarios:
• in-person learning (all may return to school)
• hybrid learning (combination of in-person and distance learning)
• distance learning (at-home learning)
Schools will decide which learning model to use based on the number of new cases of COVID-19. The state recommends different models based on the 14-day case rate per 10,000 population. For a case rate of:
• 0 to less than 10: In-person learning for all students
• 10 to less than 20:Elementary in-person; middle/high school hybrid learning
• 20 to less than 30: All hybrid learning
• 30 to less than 50: Elementary hybrid; middle/high school distance learning
• 50 or more: All distance learning
The Kanabec County COVID-19 case rate (14-day case rate per 10,000 people) for the July 5-18 date range is five.
If county case rates are less than 10, schools have the option to operate in-person learning for all students. However, that rate will be continuously re-calculated. The issue is further complicated by school districts in more than one county.
Voce noted that even in-person learning, which seems most like how schools operated pre-pandemic, will be changed to include social distancing measures, face coverings, more cleaning and hygiene practices, monitoring for illness, transportation changes and more.
“In-person learning is not going to be in-person learning as we know it,” Voce said. “It won’t be the same as before.”
While schools may open with in-person learning, if case rates go up they will need to change to a more restrictive model. It will take flexibility and the ability to adapt quickly on the part of parents, students and staff.
A state requirement is to offer distance learning to any students that requests it, even if school is being offered as in-person or hybrid learning.
Mora public schools is calling this their “Family Flex” option. The curriculum of students on the Family Flex distance learning plan will follow the same pace and curriculum as in-school students. Therefore, students may enroll in or out of Family Flex at anytime without disrupting where they are in the curriculum.
Schools must still provide food service to distance learning students and child care for essential workers.
The schools have been polling teachers and families to calculate as best they can how to provide child care to families and staff in a hybrid model of learning; as well as trying to estimate how many families will choose to teach their children by distance learning at home.
They’ve been trying to figure out how many students will need the bus service and how to schedule all students on alternating schedules if they need to use a hybrid model.
The schools have been measuring and calculating how to convert gym and library spaces into classrooms to accommodate 6-foot social distancing and 50% capacity limits for classrooms.
That’s not to mention sorting out how to provide food service or music classes.
None of these adjustments are cheap.
“The elephant in the room is cost. It’s quite significant” said Mora School Board Chair Karen Kirschner.
Governor Walz announced the state’s intent to provide more than $430 million to support schools through this time.
Further announcements about school re-openings will be made mid-August.
“Schools across the state are doing amazing things to get kids back to school,” said Voce.
“School, just like life, is going to be different.”