How do you set up new child care plans in a couple of days? How will children continue to get school meals when schools are closed? And if schools don’t resume in April or even May, how will teachers be able to teach their students?
The Alexandria and Brandon-Evansville school boards met Monday night, and those were just a few of the questions that were being asked.
The tall tasks were set in place on Sunday morning when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that, in response to the coronavirus pandemic, all of the state’s K-12 schools were closing from Wednesday, March 18, through at least Friday, March 27.
That sent schools throughout Minnesota scrambling to come up with plans before sending kids home for a minimum of eight weekdays, and quite possibly longer.
“The weekend changed our lives in a pretty drastic way,” Alexandria Superintendent Julie Critz told the school board.
Some schools, such as Alexandria and Brandon-Evansville, closed Monday and used that time to formulate plans of how to prepare students with an assortment of instructional materials by the end of the day Tuesday. Others, such as Osakis, did the reverse, giving students last-minute instructions Monday and closing Tuesday.
Alexandria School Board member Dave Anderson said these are important times for both teachers and students.
“Teachers would like to wish each student well,” he said. “They might not see them the rest of the year. We don't know.”
The plans that came out of staff meetings Monday, Critz said, revolved around how best to provide students with everything they needed on Tuesday. She said it included being reassuring and calming in teaching students what they needed to know.
“We know they’re feeling stress and anxiety. Our staff is feeling that, too,” she said. “We’ll approach tomorrow with the idea of being a helper.”
Brandon-Evansville School administrators assured school board members that the district is getting ready and planning for distance learning, and is doing the best it can during this time of uncertainty.
Administration is monitoring and assessing the situation on a daily basis and working with the Minnesota Department of Education. Superintendent Don Peschel said the district is sending home information with students on Tuesday and will remain in contact with parents and staff.
“We have a good bunch (of staff members) who care deeply about the kids,” said Peschel, expressing how thankful he was for all of them and how they have stepped up to the plate. “They are calm and resilient and that is very heartwarming to see. They want to provide the best possible education and support to our students.
“We are in uncharted waters, but we will get through this.”
The executive order issued Sunday by Walz included a few components.
"The governor’s executive order was put in place to allow students to plan for possible distance learning over a long period of time, should there be a need for that," Critz said in a letter to parents. "Our plans for Monday and Tuesday of this week will set us up for deployment of distance learning, should we need to do this for an extended period of time."
Distance learning differs from e-learning, she explained to the board. One definition of distance learning is that teachers have daily contact with students.
High school and middle school students are familiar with accessing their instructional materials online, Critz said, but that is not true of elementary students.
“When students potentially don't come back for weeks on end, what do they need in their hands?” she asked.
Middle school and high school students will have their schedules adjusted Tuesday to enable them to attend all eight of their classes and receive instructions from all eight of their teachers.
When students go home Tuesday, those who will be using devices will have them in their possession along with chargers, and will have been given instructions by teachers for distance learning. In grades 5-12, that includes checking students' Chromebooks to make sure they are working, and have log-in information for needed websites. Students in grades 2-4 will be sent home with their Chromebook devices.
Students will also be asked to take home their personal items that will help them over the next several weeks in the event schools do not reopen for classes on Monday, March 30.
Those who do not have access to the internet are asked to notify their teachers so other arrangements can be made. Solving the broadband question is just one of a host of questions school districts are dealing with.
“We don't have all the answers and we have a ton of questions,” Critz said. “We're figuring them out as fast as we can.”
The Minnesota Department of Education and the governor’s office have provided some guidance, and the district has teams of people working on various issues. For instance, they are collecting information about who doesn’t have wi-fi in their homes, and exploring whether buses be deployed so students could tap into hot spots for access.
Brandon-Evansville School Board Chairman David Anderson said he reached out to Gardonville to talk about technology concerns for students who may not have internet access at home. He was contacted by General Manager Dave Wolf, who reassured him the company would work with the school district and its families.
“He told me, ‘Whatever you need. We will figure this out,’ ” Anderson said.
Child care, meals
When Walz and other state officials held a press conference on the coronavirus situation on Friday, one reason cited for not closing schools was over concerns about health care workers. If they need to stay home with young children, it would keep them from caring for the sick.
The executive order the governor signed Sunday took care of that by requiring schools to provide care for elementary-age children of healthcare professionals, first responders and other emergency workers during previously-planned school days.
Critz said that anyone fitting this description, regardless of whether they currently have a contract with the district, can call Community Education for further information at 320-762-3310. Transportation is a component that is still being worked on.
One other aspect of the state's announcement was that schools continue providing meals to students, and that they set up continued school mental health services.
The Brandon-Evansville district will be sending out surveys to parents to find out what needs are out there when it comes to technology and meals for students. It will be offering child care, and is working on providing meals to students, although it doesn’t know exactly what that will look like yet.
Information will be sent to parents when details have been figured out.
“We will continue to work on planning as it is evolving,” Peschel said. “We will be delivering lunch to families. We will have avenues to get food to families. Technology issues will be addressed, too.”
The Alexandria district is also working on logistics to provide meals to families, Critz said. On Wednesday and Thursday, she expects families will be able to pick up breakfast and lunch for that day. Friday and Monday were days off due to spring break, and perhaps by Tuesday school buses may be delivering meals.
A lot is up in the air, including job duties, which may be switching to what is most needed. At this time, she said teachers are better equipped to teach from their classrooms.
“Every building met with their staff. The response was truly amazing,” Critz said. The prevailing attitude was to embrace this challenge and make it the best they possibly can for their students. She even received offers to help from former teachers.
“I'm so proud,” Critz said. “I can't say enough about how hard everyone has been working.”
Reporter Celeste Edenloff contributed to this story.
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