It’s been a suspenseful summer, to say the least. Gov. Tim Walz waited until July 30 to announce that back-to-school format decisions would largely rest in the hands of local school boards. Then district leaders began scrambling to gather parent and educator feedback on the various models they’d created — in-person, hybrid, and distance learning — so they could narrow it down and bring a plan A to their school board for approval.
Right away, two of the state’s largest public school districts, Minneapolis and St. Paul, announced plans to start the year in a full-time distance learning format, with the intent to transition toward some degree of in-person learning later on, so long as infection rates allow for a safe return. The St. Louis Park and Robbinsdale school districts have opted to do the same.
The majority of metro-area districts, however, have announced hybrid plans that will rotate students into the school buildings for some degree of in-person learning, often prioritizing more in-person class time for elementary students.
At the start of the month, the Bloomington Public Schools board voted to adopt a hybrid model to start out the school year. Just two weeks later, however, it changed course. At a special board meeting on Aug. 17, the board voted to start the year in a distance learning format instead.
It’s the sort of hard pivot that families in many hybrid districts will be bracing for as the school year gets under way. Future county-level COVID-19 infection rates — a measure the state is using to help dictate safe levels of in-person learning — may force more districts to shift to distance learning later this fall. In preparation, districts have spent the past few months shoring up their backup plans. But COVID-19 rates weren’t the driving factor in Bloomington. Rather, district leaders flagged staffing limitations as a deal breaker for the hybrid model.
With teacher workshops beginning Monday in many districts — and students returning as early as Aug. 31 in some districts — these sorts of realizations may seem a bit late. But, in reality, many hybrid districts are still in the process of assessing their staffing inventory. In brief, logistics — rather than an increase in infection rates — could drive similar moves in other metro-area districts in the next week or two.
Big decisions, little time
At the board’s regularly scheduled Aug. 3 meeting, Superintendent Les Fujitake made the recommendation that they start the school year with a hybrid model — a format that he and his team had been planning and vetting over the summer months.
“The board was asked to support my recommendation because we needed to be able to gather stakeholder information, to help us determine if the hybrid model is viable,” he said at Monday evening’s special board meeting. “We needed to figure out parent choice … and ask staff about their accommodation applications and requests.”
The parent choice piece adds a complicating factor to back-to-school planning. Walz mandated that all districts, including those that opt to go back in a hybrid model or fully in person, must offer a full-time distance learning alternative to families, no matter their coronavirus risk factors.
So Fujitake, along with his peers in other hybrid districts, had a short window of time to ask parents to commit to either the hybrid model or a segment of full-time distance learning. Simultaneously, district leaders needed to take inventory of their licensed teachers and support staff, to see how many needed work-from-home accommodations because they, or someone under their direct care, are at a greater risk of facing health complications if exposed to the virus.
In Bloomington, these two surveys went out to parents and teachers on Aug. 4, with a response deadline that Friday for teachers and on Monday for parents, says Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations for the district. Results indicated that roughly 20 percent of parents wanted to participate in an online format. And roughly 20 percent of teachers needed work-from-home accommodations. The licensure areas and grade levels of those students and teachers, however, did not align.
Kaufman says district leaders even looked at the possibility of putting non-licensed paraprofessionals in classrooms, to supervise and support students, as they received instruction, virtually, from a licensed teacher delivering a lesson from the safety of their home. But, in the end, the staffing puzzle proved too difficult to solve.
At Monday evening’s special board meeting, school leaders shared all of the staffing roadblocks they’d come up against, as they’d dug into the nitty gritty details of scheduling. A secondary principal, Jaysen Anderson, said they’d have to move licensed staff around, placing many out of their licensure areas. They’d also have to limit course options. And even after all of the shuffling, class sizes for in-person learning, under their hybrid format — about 20 students per class in Block A and 20 in Block B — would still be above recommended levels.
“Based on conversations with my colleagues at the middle- and high-school level, we believe this model is simply not workable in its current form,” he said at the meeting Monday. “There are too many holes to be filled, too many teachers covering too many areas of responsibility, too many courses that can’t be offered.”
He and his colleagues recommended an alternative format to start the school year: distance learning with supports, which would allow for some students to receive in-person instruction and support on a more case-by-case basis. The board voted in support of this new plan.
‘Not unique to Bloomington’
“When we saw the issues with staffing, we said: ‘We need to go to the board. We can’t wait another week,’” Kaufman said, noting they expected the move might grab the attention of parents and media outlets because “we were sort of the first to go.”
But he suspects that other metro-area districts that committed to a hybrid model earlier this month are currently running up against the same sorts of logistical stumbling blocks. Based on what he’s been hearing from other district leaders, he says others may end up backpedaling from their initial hybrid plans as well. “Everyone is wrestling with this. We reached out to a lot of our neighboring districts, and they’re all experiencing the same issues,” he said. “It’s not unique to Bloomington.”
Wendy Marczak, president of the Bloomington Federation of Teachers, says she’s hearing similar staffing concerns from local union leaders. The pandemic has turned so political, she adds, that teachers are being blamed for upending the hybrid plan. In reality, 50 percent of teachers surveyed in the district said they were ready to go back to a safe form of in-person learning. And more said they’d be on board, pending added assurances around things like ventilation and social distancing inside the school buildings.
“We’re getting beat up, because it appears to the public that the teachers decided they didn’t want to go to work and just wanted to work from home. That’s not what happened at all. We didn’t have an action. We worked alongside them,” Marczak said.
She suspects that other districts are making the same discovery, this week, as they continue to process work-from-home accommodation requests and leave of absence requests — citing not just personal health risk factors, but those under their direct care at home, such as infants with lung issues or elderly spouses on oxygen.
Faced with this challenge, she predicts that many hybrid districts will opt to stay the course, at least until the school year gets under way and public health data compels them to adjust. “What they’re going to choose to do is they’re just gonna go to school and fill the holes in the best they can and just give it a try because they don’t want the public outrage that has happened with Bloomington,” she said.
Jessica Rice, a high school math teacher in the Bloomington district, says the board’s recent decision to swap out hybrid learning for distance learning came as a huge relief. After poring over the state’s quarantine protocol, she realized that she could have a student in her classroom test positive for COVID-19 and she’d never even be notified. “They’d just suddenly be absent from my class,” she said. “That sort of anxiety came at me in the last week and a half.”
Now that she’ll be teaching remotely to start the school year, she can shelve those sorts of looming concerns and focus on preparing lessons. In her district, that work starts Monday, when teachers come back for workshops that’ll include everything from orientation materials to new COVID-19 sanitization and safety protocol to lesson planning.
“Now we can all get to work on Monday and at least know the direction we’re heading in for the next month or two,” she said.