Starting the school year: CEA leaders, Olson cover a lot of ground at sit-down

Mike Christopherson
Thursday at CHS, Crookston Education Association lead negotiator Sara Geist, center, asks Superintendent Jeremy Olson a question. Seated left to right are Special Services Director Kathy Stronstad, Highland School Principal Chris Trostad, and CEA President Kim Davidson.

Crookston Public Schools parents and students, if you’re currently nervous and stressed-out as the start of an unprecedented school year draws nearer on the calendar, you’re not alone. Teachers and administrators all the way up to Superintendent Jeremy Olson indicated at a sit-down Thursday that they are as anxious as you are, to the point that they’re not sleeping well.

Leadership from the teachers’ bargaining unit, the Crookston Education Association, sat down for a couple hours Thursday in a Family and Consumer Sciences classroom at the high school with Olson, a couple other CEA members, Highland Principal Chris Trostad, and members of the Crookston School Board’s Negotiations Committee in an effort to make sure everyone’s on the same page as a school year draws near that, according to the latest rising COVID-19 numbers in Polk County, is on track to start with entirely in-person instruction for pre-K through sixth grade, and a hybrid learning model for grades 7-12 that will have students in staggered fashion learning some days in the classroom and some days from home.

In accordance with the state’s “Safe Learning Program” announced last week, in order to have entirely in-person instruction, a county’s average of new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people over the previous 14 days needs to be less than 10. A few weeks ago, the Polk County average was 3.86. Then it rose to 6.01. Now, it’s at 8.86, and that doesn’t include the seven new confirmed cases in the county on Thursday. So Olson and everyone else in the FCS room Thursday acknowledged that a hybrid learning model at the high school is looking more and more likely.

Even with the learning models dictated by the state, if families want their kids to distance-learn, they have that option. The school district is in the process of soliciting that information from families. Olson said Thursday that the upcoming school board meeting originally scheduled for Monday, Aug. 24 has been moved up on the calendar, to Tuesday, Aug. 18. At that meeting, he said, the board will make its final determination on how the school year is going to start, so families have as much time as possible to make the choices that are best for them.

Olson acknowledged that important information is coming fast and furious, and frequently changing, and that he and other decision-makers are doing their best to stay on top of everything and keep everyone informed.

“We’re on the same page, I think, but it’s like we’re drinking out of a fire hose right now,” he said. “This is what I lose sleep about every night. I keep thinking about the first day of school and what that’s going to be like.”

Lots of questions

The CEA and board’s Negotiations Committee won’t sit down until next spring to start discussions on a new teacher contract. But CEA lead negotiator Sara Geist and CEA President Kim Davidson requested Thursday’s session to go through the district’s “School Safety Plan” released earlier this week, and seek more information and more clarity on numerous items in that plan. Essentially, Geist politely peppered Olson with questions, and he did his best to provide as many concrete answers as he possibly could, at this particular point in time, with the Minnesota Department of Health due to update and/or tweak various safety and healthy recommendations in relation to COVID-19 as schools ramp up to the start of the school year.

The full CEA is meeting today, Friday, so Geist and Davidson can get everyone up to speed as best as they can, and answer questions that teachers are certain to have.

Here’s a rundown of the most pressing issues covered Thursday:

• Masks: K-12 students and staff will be required to wear them. For those who don’t have their own, Olson said orders are in for thousands of adult-sized and thousands of child-sized masks.

Everyone in the room agreed that the mask requirement, as Geist put it, “sounds better on paper than it’s actually going to go.”

Physical education/health teacher Josh Hardy said that he witnessed this week a customer refusing to wear a mask at Hugo’s launch a water bottle at a staff member when he was confronted.

With some school staff having strong beliefs against wearing masks and some parents telling their kids they aren’t necessary, Hardy said he’s apprehensive. He said he can tell a student to take off his hat or confiscate a cell phone if a student won’t stop using it in class, but masks are a public health issue and are politicized, so they’re a whole different ballgame.

“Cell phones and hats are a battle, but they’re not a safety issue,” Hardy said. “…I think it’s going to be a big issue. From a disciplinary standpoint, what happens when a student pulls down his mask and coughs on a teacher? That’s going to happen day one. What happens when someone grabs a kid’s cell phone and licks it and puts it back on his desk? These are things that are going to happen, so we’re looking for a lot more guidance, and maybe something with a little bit of teeth in it.”

Olson said the statewide mask mandate has made the matter more clear-cut, in that any student or staff member refusing to wear a mask will be removed from the building, and in the student’s case, he or she will have to learn via distance instruction until they comply.

Olson said the district is going to have to be “forceful” on mask enforcement, otherwise, if others see someone getting away with non-compliance, the non-compliance will only spread.

“We’ll educate them on the importance of masks first. If you can get them to wear a mask, great,” the superintendent said. “If not, you remove them from the classroom and we will help with that. If there continues to be no compliance, then we have to get that kid out of the building. If they’re allowed to walk around in open defiance, it will have a ripple effect.”

A student refusing to wear a mask will be taken to the school office and his/her parents will be notified. If the parent supports their child’s non-compliance, “Then distance learning will be their option,” Olson said.

Special Services Director Kathy Stronstad added that she and her staff are working with families of special education students to clarify the mask issue. Many special ed students are mostly integrated in the classroom and will wear masks or a face-shield, she said. Other students with more severe disabilities will be more isolated with their assigned staff, Stronstad added.

• Cleaning and supplies: Olson said the district is doing the best it can to get large orders in for various cleaning supplies and things like disinfectant and sanitizer and disinfecting wipes. The wipes are a “huge one,” he said, adding that as of now the district probably has only a couple weeks supply on hand, but a large order has been placed.

“We anticipated supply lags (on all sorts of needed products) and we couldn’t order for the whole year, so we’re stockpiling as much as we can for the first couple of months,” he explained. “But we won’t know until we get started how much we’re going to use, so we’re making estimates.”

When it comes to cleaning, state guidelines emphasize “high-touch” surfaces, which means custodians will be spending less time cleaning things like floors and other things “below waist level,” Olson said, and more time cleaning surfaces that students and staff frequently touch, like door handles, light switches, tables, desks, and entrance and exit doors. The custodial staff is not being expanded, he added, but, instead, their priorities will change.

Cleaning of high-touch areas will take place periodically throughout the school day, but not likely between periods at the high school. Geist said Thursday that she expects teachers will try their best to do some quick cleaning between periods, but noted that, at CHS, they’re contractually obligated to provide hallway supervision at passing time.

In the evenings, Olson said, “deep cleaning” in the three school buildings will take place, with all kinds of surfaces being “sprayed down.”

• Protocols if someone feels ill or someone tests positive for COVID-19: In order to find a balance between privacy statutes and keeping people informed, Olson said if a student or staff member tests positive, the district will announce the school building in which the positive test has been confirmed, but will not identify the person. The last thing he wants is someone being afraid to come forward because of any perceptions about public shaming or anything like that.

“We need people to feel comfortable reporting to us right away, even if it’s just a scare and they don’t test positive,” Olson added. “And if they are positive, we need that reported early. If they feel like we’re going to identify them immediately, maybe they won’t come forward as they might otherwise.

“We have a duty to let people know and a duty to protect (privacy),” he continued.

Geist said there should be no shame felt whatsoever by anyone who tests positive.

“I’d feel no shame if I had COVID,” she said. “But what I’m hearing is (among staff) it’s the fear of loss of work. But no one is at fault in a worldwide pandemic.”

Geist also noted, and Hardy echoed her, that students are already communicating almost constantly about themselves or friends who don’t feel well and/or are being tested, etc. 

Davidson endorsed the building-level notification approach.

“It’s better than just saying there’s a case in the school district,” she said. “If I’m (in the building where someone has tested positive), I might keep my child home for a few days.”

Hardy wondered what the staff’s responsibility is if they hear student chatter in the hallways about, for example, a kid who’s “been coughing all week” or a kid being sick but not getting tested.

Olson said the staff response in those instances might evolve with time.

“My thought process on that, at least at the beginning of the year, is that kids make things bigger than they are,” he explained. “But we need to have an abundance of caution at the beginning. I would hate to say just ignore (the hallway chatter) and then have 20 cases.”

In that event, the suggestion was for a teacher to consult with the school principal and go from there.

“As we get into the school year, we’ll probably change our response some,” Olson added. “Just think about what we’ve learned about this virus since March. This is an evolving situation.”

Positive vibes

Olson said he appreciated “the spirit” in which the CEA leadership approached him and the school board requesting Thursday’s “conversation.”

Davidson said it’s all about building confidence.

“The more we can help parents know what we’re doing and get them feeling better about things, the better off we all are,” she said. “We’re probably asking a lot of questions that parents would ask. We want them to know their kids are coming to a safe place.”

“Everything we’re talking about and everything we need to do, that’s what’s going to keep us open, that’s what’s going to keep us face-to-face,” Geist added. 

Hybrid model questions, concerns

Teachers Jessica Hanson and Kristi Griffin participated in Thursday’s meeting remotely, with their faces seen on a laptop computer next to Geist. But large swaths of the discussion came and went without either one of them saying anything, and Geist acknowledging that she was forgetting to ask them for their input.

It served as an example, Geist stressed, of what a hybrid model or mix of in-person and remote instruction cannot be. Students cannot be expected, she said, to spend seven hours a day simply watching their classroom on a screen.

Those strategies will come more into focus as teachers and administration get clarity on which students will be in the classroom, and which ones will choose distance learning instead, Olson said.

“Many elementary parents aren’t comfortable with face-to-face,” said Davidson, a fourth grade teacher at Highland. “If 17 of my students come to class and six stay home, how does that look? How am I going to do that? I’m a veteran teacher and I know some tricks of the trade, but how I’m going to navigate that, I don’t know.”

Geist is a proponent of a cohort of staff being designated distance-learning educators, and potentially teaching kids in a distance pod, of sorts, from multiple grade levels, like K-3.

Olson said he thinks there could be some “awesome educational” experiences in such a scenario, but working out the logistics is a challenge. “I don’t want to assign five teachers to work with six kids (via distance learning) and then overload everyone else,” he said.

Geist said the district in its approach needs to be proactive, not reactive. She mentioned the Fisher and Climax-Shelly districts years ago deciding to send their school buses to Crookston to pick up open-enrolling students for school and drop them off after school. The buses weren’t full at first, but they got more full over time, she said.

“They were proactive, and that’s what we need to be,” Geist said.

“We ask parents about distance learning, and they say they don’t want to do what they did last spring, but we know now that we can put out something much better than that,” she continued. “But we also know there are umpteen different online schools advertising for our kids. There are homeschool pods. We can’t have parents and kids thinking that distance learning is going to be just like last spring. How can we be proactive? If we do it like this (with teachers Hanson and Griffin simply observing via a computer screen), that won’t work for me. If we don’t plan appropriately, I’m afraid we’ll compromise both (in-person and distance instruction). I’m really passionate that we can do really good distance learning, and we need parents to know that before they make their choice.”