Olson: 90% of school start planning complete, but remaining 10% is the challenge

Mike Christopherson

Thursday, July 30 can’t get here soon enough.

At Monday’s Crookston School Board meeting, it didn’t matter if it was a board member speaking, or a school principal or other administrator, or Superintendent Jeremy Olson: The words “eagerly” and “anxiously” were uttered on many occasions, as decision-makers in the room noted how they’re eagerly and anxiously awaiting recommendations from the State of Minnesota on July 30 on how best to start the 2020-21 school year.

Will school start entirely with in-person instruction? Or will it be all distance learning? Will it be a hybrid combination of both?

“We’re trying to think of every aspect we could possibly run into,” Highland School Principal Chris Trostad said.

Speaking to the Times Tuesday, Olson stressed that the district realizes that parents and families bring a wide variety of situations and scenarios to the table, and they come “from many different situations.” The district’s goal in planning for the start of the school year, he said, will be to “meet families where they are.”

A recent online survey of families in the district “gave a great indication of where families are at,” Olson noted. “We don’t want to put them in any awkward situations,” he added.

The superintendent estimated that 90% of planning for all three scenarios is complete, but it’s the remaining 10% that is the biggest challenge. “The devil is in that 10%, the final details,” Olson said.

The school board has approved a calendar change allowing for two days of administration and staff planning on Aug. 11-12 for the start of the school year.

Although most stakeholders are likely focused on actual instruction, one huge aspect of planning that needs to commence if a component of in-person instruction is implemented is transportation. Olson said the district will simply not be able to put 60 kids on a bus because of social distancing. The occupancy will be closer to 14 kids, with a max of maybe 25. Serving the district’s youngest students, Washington School Principal Denice Oliver said she’s especially wondering about the “transportation piece” and how it could be implemented in the safest possible way for children.

Olson, mentioning the recent parent survey, said it was “tremendous” to see 80% of respondents indicating they’d be willing to assist the district in transportation by bringing their kids to school or picking them up.

Once the state releases its recommendations, Olson said the plans to start the school year specific to Crookston Public Schools will be formulated and finalized as soon as possible, and they will be communicated with staff and families and the local media, with as much detail as possible. Included among the information will be guidance on things like mask-wearing, Olson said.

“We will be putting out very specific guidance on different situations, but with three potential, different plans, we won’t release anything until we have a plan from the state,” he continued. “We don’t want to confuse anyone. We will push it all out once with as much clarity as possible. The options are out there publicly already, but it’s the specific things and the different grade levels that we’re holding back on until we get further, official guidance.” 

A component of the communication give-and-take, post July 30, will very likely include further feedback from families on what scenarios might work best for them, Olson added.

The goal will be to have “all of the logistics for families” ironed out by the conclusion of the Aug. 11-12 planning days, he said, adding that just because a plan will be put in place for the start of the school year, circumstances could change and plans could be altered by October or November.

In addition to the district’s youngest students, perhaps special education students benefit most from in-person instruction, and struggle the most in a distance-learning format. Special Services Director Kathy Stronstad said she and her staff are doing their best to craft scenarios that work the best for special education students and their families.

“The safety of students and staff is at the forefront of every conversation,” she said. “A lot of our kids really need face-to-face (instruction), and we’ll try to bring them in as much as we can, unless it’s all distance learning. I know our wonderful staff will do their very best for them.”

Board member Tim Dufault acknowledged the difficult situation, and stressed that no situation will be ideal for anyone.

“Whatever is decided, there will be upset people and happy people,” he said. “Please bear with everyone and just have patience.”