RPS plan: start with hybrid model for elementary students, distance learning for older kids

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Rochester Public Schools’ initial plan for the first two months of the 2020-21 school year is here. Most elementary schoolers and Lincoln (K-8) students will use a hybrid model, while most middle and high school students (grades 6-12) will stick with the distance learning model implemented in the spring. 

The decision was made after Gov. Tim Walz released guidelines for school re-openings last week. Based on Olmsted County’s case incidence rate of 17, the district played it safe with their plan: the state guidelines call for in-person learning for elementary students and a hybrid model for secondary students for districts with similar rates.

Superintendent Michael Muñoz said the plan, while revealed later than other Minnesotan districts, was carefully crafted with assistance from Olmsted County Public Health and Mayo Clinic. The wait, he hopes, will be worth it.

“It took us longer, but I really think it’s going to pay off,” said Muñoz. “We had over 160 people working on this, from all areas of the district. The unknown is stressful, so I’m hoping this will help relieve a little stress.”

Here are five essential bits of information from Friday’s announcement.

THE ELEMENTARY HYBRID SETUP

Elementary students will have in-person instruction two days per week, with the rest of the week filled in by distance learning. Schools will be broken up into two groups: one that receives in-person instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays, the other on Thursdays and Fridays.

A ‘normal’ in-person learning day will allow for recess (socially distant, with masks, and including hand-washing before and after going outside), and breakfast and lunch will be served. The standard Covid-19 guidelines apply as well: all students, staff and visitors will be required to wear masks, stay socially distant, wash hands frequently, and complete the Minnesota Department of Education’s screening process before coming to school.

In-person schooling will be dismissed one hour early (approximately 2:30) to allow time for teachers to connect with their distance learning students. On the way to and from school, buses will be limited to 50 percent capacity.

THE OPT-OUT CLAUSE

Families who don’t want their elementary school-aged child in school will have the option to choose a full distance learning model. In that situation, students will be assigned one teacher for the rest of the trimester. Once a student opts out, the decision is final until the trimester ends.

To opt out, families must request a Distance Learning Form from their school and submit it by Thursday, August 14 at 4 p.m. (If families plan to have their child go through the hybrid model, no action is needed.)

HOW LONG WILL THE PLAN LAST?

Currently, until the end of October.

RPS says it will re-evaluate and adjust plans every six weeks, with an announcement on Phase 2 expected by October 16 — hopefully, according to the superintendent, by MEA break. Superintendent Muñoz added that meetings with a ‘critical advisory team,’ made up of officials from Olmsted County Public Health and Mayo Clinic, will take place every two weeks moving forward.

If the local Covid-19 situation dramatically worsens before then, Muñoz said the district could update their plans and send all students to a distance learning model before mid-October.

INFRASTRUCTURE UPDATES

For elementary students to successfully abide by social distancing, RPS will have to change the layouts of its schools. ‘Excess’ furniture is being removed and signs encouraging social distancing will be added, in addition to a full ‘calibration’ of the schools’ air filtration systems. The district says it will change air filters more frequently and increase air exchange rates throughout the day.

PLANS FOR OTHER PROGRAMS

Some RPS programs, like Intensive Special Education, Project SEARCH, or RAIL, can’t operate correctly in either distance or hybrid learning models. The district says students in those programs will receive a custom schedule after their families meet with a program administrator.

School Age Child Care (SACC), the district’s longtime child care program, will continue to operate, although the district says registration began in May and lots of schools are already full. On distance learning days, certain ‘critical workers’ are eligible to receive free child care during the school day — registration for that program starts August 17.

The first day of school is now set for Wednesday, September 2, after the district reserved the first two days of the week for additional planning time. Read the full announcement from the district here.


Isaac Jahns is a Rochester native and a 2019 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. He reports on politics, business and music for Med City Beat.

Cover photo: File / licensed via Getty