Nine of Minnesota’s 30 largest school districts have yet to reopen their middle and high schools for in-person instruction, missing a target set last month by Gov. Tim Walz.
Walz announced on Feb. 17 that even where coronavirus case rates were high, all middle and high schools could reopen the following week as long as they took extra health and safety precautions. At the same time, the governor said he “expected” all schools to offer at least some in-person instruction by March 8.
But nine large school districts — including seven of the top 15 — still have all or nearly all of their middle and high schoolers learning from home this week.
Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said many out-state districts have had students learning in-person the entire school year, or close to it. But it’s harder for large school districts to reopen.
Among the challenges is state guidance that says middle and high schools must keep students at least six feet away from each other, “whenever feasible,” and at least three feet at all times.
“Some are trying to figure out how they can bring in really large class sizes while maintaining social distancing,” Henton said.
District leaders also are watching to see how mitigation efforts are working and whether coronavirus case rates rise as more students and staff return to school, she said. And some are working through concerns raised by employee unions.
Walz said last month that he trusts district leaders to bring students back when they can and there would be no penalties for those that miss his goal.
FOUR-DAY WEEKS THE NORM
Even though many have yet to change their learning models, the change in state guidance did generate a flurry of local announcements. All 30 large districts plan to have all schools open by April 20, at the latest; four will reopen later this month.
But even then, most secondary students will continue to spend part of their school week at home.
Only six of the 30 large districts plan to have their secondary students in classrooms every day of the week. Meanwhile, at least 17 will operate on four-day, in-person schedules, reserving the fifth day for teacher preparation and cleaning.
The others might not open more than two days a week.
The four-day week is becoming the pandemic norm because of an executive order Walz issued in November. It required schools to give teachers an extra 30 minutes in daily planning time if they are responsible for students who learn from home either full- or part-time.
Unlike the elementary level, where teachers are largely interchangeable, scheduling is complicated in middle and high school. That’s forcing many districts to place distance and in-person students in the same classes.
Anoka-Hennepin, Osseo and others have decided to combine that 2 ½ hours of teacher planning time into a single day, keeping students at home, doing schoolwork on their own time, on Fridays while teachers take that time to prepare.
St. Cloud made the same decision after initially announcing it would have secondary students in school every day.
SHORT DAYS FOR ST. PAUL
Besides shortened school weeks, some districts also are starting each school day late or ending early.
St. Paul Public Schools will have secondary students in school just 4 ½ hours a day, four days a week, starting April 14. Fridays, as well as two extra hours each day Monday-Thursday, are for independent learning at home.
That will allow students to keep the schedules and teachers they’ve had during distance learning while their teachers plan and work with students who opt to continue with distance learning.
The goal was to “maintain relationships that have been established all year long, not doing a mass change of students’ schedules and breaking up that continutiy for kids, while at the same time giving even more intentionality” to teacher planning and individualized instruction, assistant superintendent Josh Delich said in an interview.
Likewise, South Washington County will have secondary schools open five hours a day, four days a week.
“The shortened school day and school week allows teachers to divide their time between in-person instruction and the Virtual Learning Academy,” the district told families.
The Minnesota Department of Education discourages schools from sending students home early. In clarifying guidance issued Thursday, the department suggested putting teaching assistants in charge of students while teachers take their planning time.
With an April 20 target, Minneapolis may be the last district to reopen its secondary schools, but it tentatively plans to be open five days a week, depending on how many students decide to come back.
The full-time schedule should be doable because the district already has extra teacher planning time built into its school day. Some classes, though, will look anything but normal, with students and teachers in multiple locations.
“For example, a Greek History class with only one teacher who is working remotely may have to be conducted fully via distance learning,” spokesman Dirk Tedmon said, “with in-person students going to the media center or another location to log in for the virtual class, then resuming their daily in-person schedule.”
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