Crookston Schools ramping up toward in-person instruction and teachers have questions, Olson looks to provide clarity to families

Mike Christopherson

    Although it’s not yet time to start negotiating wages and benefits as part of a new contract, members of the teachers’ bargaining unit, the Crookston Education Association, will meet Thursday, Aug. 6 with the Crookston School Board’s Negotiations Committee.

    On the agenda? How the start of the 2020-21 school year is going to play out in Crookston Public Schools, which as of now is on track to feature in-person instruction in the classroom. CEA President Kim Davidson, a fourth-grade teacher at Highland School, tells the Times that the CEA has several questions about student and staff safety, instructional options and other matters relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it will impact teaching and learning once the school year commences.

    “There are a lot of things that have to be talked about,” Davidson said. “There are so many gray areas right now, so we’re looking for as many details as possible.”

    In advance of Thursday’s discussion, the Times reached out to Davidson and Sara Geist, the CEA’s lead negotiator, for the CEA’s thoughts at this juncture. In response, Davidson and Geist released a statement on behalf of the CEA:

    “The CEA recognizes the many complex decisions that have gone into planning for the reopening of schools. We appreciate the thoughtfulness that went into the governor's decision to give districts local control using science and guidance from public health departments and the Minnesota Department of Health. The CEA understands the balance that needs to happen between protecting students, families, staff and advancing the education of our students. Teachers and parents are feeling the anxiety that uncertainty creates. Since none of us has a play book for dealing with a worldwide pandemic it becomes increasingly important to have a big picture view while at the same time planning for the many day to day details that support those plans,” the statement reads. “Both the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education have provided guidance for the different scenarios that a local district might find themselves needing to implement.  Before school begins it will be important to hear the voices of practitioners on how the details of those plans will play out at the local level. The CEA sees the next several months as a fluid situation. We have confidence that our local school board, with pertinent information, will make the best decision for students, families and staff.”

Clearing up confusion, misconceptions

    Superintendent Jeremy Olson and Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese continue to consult frequently, as new COVID-19 cases continue to be reported almost daily in Polk County and planning continues for in-person instruction to start the school year.

    Olson tells the Times that the main goal is to give parents and families as much clarity as possible in order to minimize confusion. Right now, the county’s average number of new cases over the past 14 days per 10,000 people – the formula that is the basis of the state’s “Safe Learning Plan” announced late last week – remains in the range that allows for all in-person instruction.

    But, if new positive cases were to continue to trend upward and push past the state’s threshold for an all in-person instruction model – the next window includes in-person instruction for elementary students and a hybrid model for high school students – Olson stressed that such a scenario does not mean the district would automatically be forced to alter its instructional model in order to meet the state’s guidelines. Instead, if the county’s numbers push the district into the next set of guidelines, a “conversation would commence,” the superintendent said.

    “It’s not a situation where we go over the threshold and we’re automatically switching,” Olson added.

    The announcement of the Safe Learning Program and the data on which it’s based is spurring parents and families to hop on the web and track new COVID-19 case numbers being reported daily in Polk County.

    “People are taking the data verbatim, but there is a lag and it needs a lot of verification,” Olson said. “Tracking website data doesn’t automatically equal where we’re going to be.”

    Olson said he and Reese will continue to communicate as they fine-tune the latest information and how best to communicate it with families and the public.

    “There may be a point where we go to a more restrictive model if, for example, there are (COVID-19) cases within our school community,” he explained. “But what if we’re above the threshold but it’s determined that it’s in (an) assisted living (facility) that’s more of a confined, contained community? That’s why there are conversations that will be had.”