District mulling late start to in-person classes

A spring 2018 gathering at Lyndale Community School
A spring 2018 gathering at Lyndale Community School. A draft School Board resolution would delay in-person instruction until at least Nov. 15. Social distancing will be a component of any plan to reopen schools this fall. File photo

As Gov. Tim Walz considers whether to mandate remote education this fall, Minneapolis schools are working to improve their digital infrastructure and ensure buildings are safe for in-person classes.

On July 30, Walz will announce whether classes can be held in person and, if so, what rules will determine classroom capacity.

While schools won’t be able to accommodate more students than allowed by the governor, they can choose to be more restrictive. That means districts can decide to continue with remote learning.

A draft resolution from Minneapolis School Board member Bob Walser (Downtown/Chain of Lakes) would require the district to start the school year remotely and not resume in-person instruction until at least Nov. 15. A School Board Committee of the Whole meeting is scheduled for July 28; Walser said that he thinks he has the votes to pass the resolution, which is also supported by board member Ira Jourdain (Southwest), though it has yet to be added to the board’s meeting agenda as of press time.

In Minneapolis, public and private schools are waiting for the governor’s announcement to share their plans, but they’ve been preparing for multiple scenarios.

A 150-plus-member Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) committee has been working on a distance-learning plan that would allow for better technology access and more student-teacher interaction.

The district has also anonymously surveyed staff about accommodations they might need in order to return to school. It declined to say how many teachers have requested to telework or to take a leave of absence for the coming school year. Currently, there are no plans to incentivize in-person work with extra pay.

The district is not yet sharing details on what its hybrid-education model could look like. A spokesperson said building capacities could constrain how many students could return.

The district is looking at city and state data collected on the spring distance-learning experience.

A statewide survey that yielded over 134,000 responses found that 64% of parents would be comfortable sending their kids back to school. The rate was identical for the 7,211 Minneapolis parents included in the poll.

About 56% of the Minneapolis parents reported that the remote-education experience was either “bad” or “very bad.”

‘A lot of uncertainty’

Many families and educators are hesitant to send students back to school until more is known about the effects COVID-19 or the outbreak is better contained in the region.

Michael Jischke, a Lynnhurst parent of three, said the spring remote-learning period was really challenging because his kids missed out on the social relationships they have at school.

“Seeing their classmates online just wasn’t really a replacement for that,” he said.

Jischke, who works full time at home, said it was difficult to devote the time to help and keep track of what his kids were supposed to do. But he said that he and his wife are still undecided about whether they would send their kids back to school.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty and questions about how they’ll protect students [and] teachers,” he said, adding that it would be challenging to follow social-distancing protocols in the classroom.

Greta Callahan, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said most MPS teachers don’t yet think it’s safe to return to school.

The union has started a petition in conjunction with the St. Paul and Anoka-Hennepin teachers unions that asks Walz to stop schools from holding in-person classes until a series of conditions are met. Those include:

  • Barring schools from opening until the number of COVID-19 cases in a community declines for 14 straight days.
  • A commitment to close any school for two weeks if someone who has been on site tests positive for COVID-19.
  • Free COVID-19 testing for all students, employees and families.
  • Improved heating, ventilation and air-conditioning systems.
  • A student-teacher ratio of 10-to-1.

The petition had over 8,150 signatures as of July 21.

Increased private school queries

Across the state, private schools, which wouldn’t be bound by Walz’s decision, have seen increased queries about their fall plans and availability, said Tim Benz, president of the Minnesota Independent School Forum.

With a median student population of 90 kids, Benz said, many private schools have additional room for students.

The pre-K-8 Carondelet Catholic School, which has campuses in Fulton and Linden Hills, said it’s planning to announce whether students will return in the last week of July.

So is the Blake School, which has its high school campus in Lowry Hill.

A statement from the Minnesota Association of Independent Schools, which includes Blake, City of Lakes Waldorf School in Whittier and Lake Country School in Kingfield, said most of its member schools are planning to reopen with some in-person capacity.

Many of the schools in the consortium have seen increased interest from prospective families and have been outfitting buildings with signage for physical distancing, hand-washing and sanitation stations and proper air-circulation and filtration equipment. Many also are repurposing multi-use spaces as additional classroom space and are preparing hybrid learning models.