Will students in grades K-12 be able to go back to physical school buildings this fall? The answer is uncertain.

The Minnesota Department of Education asked school leaders Thursday, June 18, to create three contingency plans for three possible learning scenarios in the fall: in-person learning for all, hybrid learning with social distancing and distance learning.

“Ultimately, we know that schools and families are anxious to know which scenario we will be in this fall, and we just don’t know yet,” said Department of Education Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller, during a COVID-19 media briefing Thursday.

Joined by Jan Malcolm, Minnesota Department of Health commissioner, and Kris Ehresmann, health department infectious disease division director, for the media briefing, Mueller promised the public a definitive answer by the week of July 27.

When asked why they don’t just make a decision now, Malcolm said they want to gather as much information about COVID-19 as possible while still allowing enough planning time for families and teachers.

“If we had made a decision a month ago, it might look very different than a decision that we’d make now based on changes in the data,” Ehresmann said. “... We want to make sure that we’re making a decision or making recommendations for consideration that are as close to timely as they can be.”

The three scenarios

A 100-page planning guide issued by the education department Thursday provides guidelines for how schools should address the three scenarios.

In-person learning for all students means schools would create as much space between students and teachers as is feasible during the day, but would not be mandated to strictly enforce 6 feet of social distancing during primary instructional time. Out-of-the classroom activities and extracurricular activities would be able to continue in accordance with the Minnesota Department of Health guidance for youth sports.

This scenario would be implemented if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize or improve.

The hybrid scenario means learning would take place via a combination of in-person and online instruction. Schools would limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on buses to 50% maximum occupancy and would enforce 6 feet of social distancing at all times. Schools would need to include plans for contactless pickup and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers.

This scenario would be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional or statewide level.

The distance learning scenario means schools would have to make sure students are engaged in learning and have access to appropriate educational materials and receive daily interaction with their teachers while at home. Schools would have to maintain educational continuity for all programs and make sure all students have equal access to required materials. It’s important to note, the education department guidelines state, that distance learning does not always mean online learning but simply means an out-of-school learning format all students can access equitably.

Not one size fits all

When the decision comes in late July, all schools may not see the same recommendations.

“We are looking at the state as a whole but recognizing that there are places that are not being impacted in the same ways in schools and school districts,” Mueller said.

It’s possible there could be recommendations based on a specific outbreak in one city or community, she said, that could put one school in a hybrid or distance learning model and a school in a neighboring county in a fully in-person model.

But leaders at both the departments of education and health will continue to monitor statewide numbers as a whole, Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm added, as what might seem to be an isolated concern in one community could actually impact other communities as well.

“We are more and more tracking and trying to understand local variability in what’s happening,” Malcolm said.

And, much like this past school year, districts could see mid-year changes in learning formats.

Equity in distance learning

While the department of health closely monitors the COVID-19 situation over the coming weeks, Mueller said state education officials will work with teachers, students, families and administrators to assess the successes and challenges of distance learning last spring and figure out how to make sure learning in the fall is the best experience it can be for all students, no matter what the format.

“As schools are doing their contingency planning, we are urging that they keep students at the center,” Mueller said. “With all the different logistical considerations, I want to caution my fellow educators from simply approaching this as a complicated math problem of who can go where and when. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that our students feel like their school community — whether they’re interacting with that community in person or in a hybrid or distance learning model — is a safe and welcoming place for them to learn and grow.”

This past spring was incredibly difficult for students, Mueller said, adding communities of color and indigenous communities were especially impacted by both dramatic changes due to the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

“Students are going to need the caring and thoughtful adults in their lives to show up for them now more than ever before,” she said.

Mueller urged school leaders to spend considerable amounts of time creating plans to address how they will support the mental health and well-being of their students and how educators will elevate their work concerning equity and cultural competency.

When asked for specific ways schools will help support underserved populations — students of color, those from low-income families or those with disabilities — Mueller laid out both funding and academic guidelines the department of education gave schools.

Funds to schools from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act are divided into two categories — the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund and the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund. The governor’s fund allocates money to districts for technology to make sure students have access to the proper technological devices and internet connection in the case of distance learning. If these funds are not sufficient to meet all of a district’s technology needs, Mueller said districts are encouraged to use money from the elementary and secondary school fund to bridge the gap and help eliminate the digital divide that can separate students of color or low-income families from others.

Mueller also mentioned dedicating funds to make sure schools have all the necessary support staff needed to sustain hybrid or distance learning models, and even more importantly to make sure underserved populations of students have adequate access to mental health supports.

In terms of academic approaches, Mueller said teachers and school leaders were advised this summer to begin targeting individual students who may have experienced significant learning loss both over the summer and this past spring and offer support.

“We know that there were inequities that were being highlighted during distance learning, and that’s why we’re asking schools to prioritize that in their planning so that there are not students that are not left behind,” Mueller said.

Distance learning survey

To get families involved in the planning process, the state released a survey this week for parents and guardians to share their experiences with distance learning and help determine what learning may look like in the fall.

The survey is available at https://bit.ly/3hAnl8q and can be done in English, Spanish, Hmong or Somali.

“None of this is easy, and we don’t know what going back to school will look like,” Mueller said at the end of Thursday’s briefing. “But I do know that if schools take the time to create their contingency plans this summer, no matter what the virus brings in the months ahead, our students will come back to better this school year.”

The education department’s full fall guidance plan is available at education.mn.gov.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.