St. Paul school board not ready to approve distance learning for all students


The St. Paul school board on Saturday postponed a decision on how to start the school year during the coronavirus pandemic.

Superintendent Joe Gothard on Thursday recommended all students start the year learning from home, saying the schools aren’t ready to reopen safely.

Gothard asked the board for a resolution affirming that decision and empowering the superintendent to possibly change the mode of instruction later in the school year.

During a special meeting Saturday morning, Gothard called distance learning a “starting place. … We are going to strive to get St. Paul Public Schools back in-person.”

Board members, though, have concerns about the wide latitude the resolution would give the superintendent and the fact that his special authority would run through the end of the school year. They postponed a vote on the matter till Wednesday night, when they’ll hear a more detailed report on the district’s distance learning plans.

Steve Marchese was the only board member Saturday who clearly opposed distance learning for all students next month, saying it will push families out of the district.

“What we’re proposing here is no choice for anyone who wants something different,” he said.

Marchese said the district should at least offer in-person instruction for select students, such as those in special education, English language learners and the district’s youngest students.

Board member John Brodrick said some families are eager to return to in-person instruction. He said he was encouraged to read in Gothard’s resolution that the district intends to offer that option when it can safely do so.

Gothard said that when St. Paul starts bringing students back to school, it may not happen all at once; select schools or student populations may come back before others.

The district also plans to operate “academic support centers” across the city where students pre-K through 12 can show up for in-person academic, social-emotional and technological help.

Students will be referred to the help centers by staff or by parent request, chief operating officer Jackie Turner said.

Officials also promised distance learning would work much better than it did in spring, when the pandemic forced schools to switch suddenly to remote instruction.

Teachers and students will meet every day over video conference, and students will be able to interact with each other. The school day will not be shortened, and schedules will be set in a way that enables a relatively smooth transition from distance learning to in-person instruction — and back, if necessary.

And, unlike in the spring, high school students will have to participate and complete their work in order to progress toward graduation.