School board finalizes school start plan

Mike Christopherson

As expected, the Crookston School Board Tuesday evening officially approved a resolution that will have the 2020-21 school year starting on Sept 8 in “hybrid” fashion, with preschool through sixth-graders learning via in-person instruction and seventh through twelfth-graders at the high school being educated via a combination of in-classroom instruction and distance learning.

But in a meeting that approached two hours in length - long for a school board meeting - a multitude of details that parents, students, teachers and staff need to know also came into focus.

Of the five model options offered by the state, Crookston Public Schools will start with what is officially known as “Model 2.” With a hybrid model at CHS, students will attend in-person instruction on “Blue” days and “Gold” days. A given student will attend in-person two days one week and three days the next. On the days they’re not in the classroom, they will be logged in from home and participate in that fashion.

When the state released its “Safe Learning Program” several weeks ago, it based its five models on a formula in regard to current positive COVID-19 cases in a given county: The average number of new COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days per 10,000 residents in a county determine which model window a school district falls in. But it’s not necessarily a hard line, Superintendent Jeremy Olson has continued to stress. When a district’s COVID-19 numbers are fluctuating near a threshold between models, it doesn’t mean a district is forced to automatically change its instructional delivery model, he said, it simply necessitates a “conversation” between school district officials and public health experts. A district in theory can go rogue and deliver education in the fashion it wants to despite where it’s latest COVID-19 numbers fall, he said, but the state has the power to override the local district if doing so is deemed necessary.

Several weeks ago, when the state first announced the Safe Learning Program, Polk County’s average number of COVID-19 cases over the past 14 days per 10,000 people was 3.86. Then it jumped to 6.01, and then it eclipsed 8. At that point, with the state’s Model 1 allowing for entirely in-person instruction when the average number of new cases is 1 to 10, Olson strongly hinted that Crookston Public Schools would likely start the school year under Model 2 criteria, which the board approved Tuesday evening. The superintendent said he didn’t want to try to start the year with all in-person instruction, only to have to change to the Model 2 delivery plan shortly after the start of the year.

The latest number of new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people in Polk County over the last 14 days? It’s up to 12.66, Olson said, which is officially within the Model 2 window of 10 to 20 new average cases.

“I am one who really wants to see kids with face-to-face (instruction),” Olson said. “But at the same time as I look at this and look at the data and (Polk County Public Health’s) recommendation, to go against that recommendation…it just seems to make sense to go with Model 2. But I understand everyone has different views and beliefs on this.”

Recently appointed board member Mike Theis, for one, said he’s a big believer in going with Model 1. But the board’s vote in favor of going with Model 2 was unanimous.

Families have the ability to choose to have their kids educated via distance only, with no classroom instruction. The district recently sought that information from families and Olson said he appreciates how many families have already responded. While a large majority of families have opted for in-person instruction that fits Model 2 criteria, Olson said several families have asked that their kids be educated via distance learning and they will be accommodated.

As for families with several kids in school, Olson said the goal will be to have student siblings at the high school on the same “Blue” and “Gold” day rotation.

If things change?

There’s always the hope that Polk County’s number of new COVID-19 cases will drop. Asked by Theis at what point in such a scenario that Crookston Public Schools could potentially switch to Model 1, Olson again said it’s all about having a conversation with experts. If the average number drops to 8, Olson said he wouldn’t necessarily go to the board right away with a request to move to Model 1. But if the number drops to 6 or 5 or less and the data show that the number might stay in that range, Olson said he’d definitely look to move to entirely in-person instruction.

If the opposite scenario happens and the county’s number of new cases continues to rise and as a result the district needs to consider moving into the Model 3 or, worse yet, even Model 4 delivery model, Olson said the goal would be to give families at least a week’s notice. The board would have the final say, as they did at Tuesday’s meeting, he said.

But, Olson noted, the resolution they approved includes a caveat giving him additional authority if some sort of COVID-19 crisis transpires, such as a county-wide spike in cases or a breakout in the public schools. In that event, when “very quick” action is necessary, Olson would have the authority to consult with School Board Chair Frank Fee, make the necessary change, and notify the board afterward.

Theis said he hopes that the state and county public health experts realize that Polk County, geographically speaking, is the state’s fifth largest county. What’s going on in East Grand Forks, COVID-19 wise, might not be happening on the other end of the county, in Fosston, he said.

“My concern is that I don’t want us to be pigeonholed the same as an area that’s hot, so to speak,” Theis added.

Olson said he believes that perspective is being very much taken into consideration. Polk County Public Health in addressing the start of the school year considered each school district individually and not the county as a whole, he explained.

“These decisions are not made in isolation,” the superintendent continued, adding that he meets at least weekly with public health officials and other school superintendents in the county. “We look at what the trends are, the overall county picture, and more specific situations within the county,” Olson said.

Fee noted that he’d seen a story earlier Tuesday that indicated the statewide mask-wearing mandate may be starting to have a positive effect on the state’s number of new positive COVID-19 cases.

Olson used that news nugget to remind families in the district that he continues to need their help and that their help continues to come down to three basic things: Wear a mask, properly social distance, and wash your hands.

“It all helps us, and it helps get our kids in the classroom,” he said.

Mask-wearing policy

Speaking of masks, the board approved a “face-covering” policy for the upcoming school year that tracks with the statewide mandate.

“Good luck to the elementary teachers trying to keep them on (their students),” Fee said. “It will be a full-time job just keeping them on, I’m sure.”

In all grades, the policy uses “education” first and then “enforcement.” The schools will have many disposable masks on hand if, for example, a student forgets theirs at home, but Olson said the hope is that most students consistently show up with their own mask.

While everyone seems to embrace the educate-then-enforce approach, Theis said the criteria needs to be clear for teachers and staff, especially at the high school.

“With non-compliance, while little kids might be different, if someone is trying to make a political statement at the high school, we need to see to it that we have the ability to remove students,” Theis said. “We can’t have the complaints about inconsistent enforcement that we maybe hear with cell phones or dress code.”

Olson said he’s well aware that if one student or staff member is allowed to not wear a mask, the number of those non-compliant with the policy will no doubt mushroom.

“We understand we cannot have that,” the superintendent said. 

If a student is told to wear a mask and refuses, the student will be brought to the school office and the parents will be called. If the parents do not advise their child to wear a mask and instead say they support their kid’s stance, the student will be sent home and distance learning will be their only option.

“Hopefully we’ll get support (from parents), but we understand facemasks have become political; I don’t understand why but they have,” Olson said. “If parents don’t back us, obviously the student gets sent home. If we can’t work with parents beyond that, we will provide distance learning.”

Distance learning questions, concerns, kudos

CHS Principal Eric Bubna said the goal is to have the high school’s daily academic schedule and the “Blue” and “Gold” day schedules determined by Aug. 24. School District IT Director Kevin Weber said several new iPads and ChromeBooks have been purchased so every student that doesn’t have a technological device at home will have one.

Asked about how it will work specifically for high school students on days they’re learning for home, Olson said that talks with the teaching staff continue and that those details will be announced.

Board Member Dave Davidson said, with the school district’s high poverty rate, he’s concerned that if the district has to suddenly shift to a model that has more distance learning, local families with two working parents will have very difficult choices to make, including, possibly, one parent quitting his or her job to stay home with the kids.

Olson said that’s all being taken into consideration, but he stressed that, with the district’s ability in its classrooms and buildings to properly social distance, all the way up to Model 4 the public schools would have the ability to in-person instruct preschool students through fourth grade. At the Model 3 level, fifth and sixth-graders would move to a hybrid model similar to grades 7-12, he explained. It’s not until the highest model, Model 5, that the public schools would have to educate all students entirely via distance learning.

“We wondered how to best support kids and families,” Olson explained. “We measured the rooms and, realizing we have to really creative while also following the rules, we know that we can still do preschool to fourth grade in-person all the way to Model 4. We prioritized supporting families and supporting our youngest learners.”

That train of thought was driven in part by the school district’s realization that, while educating kids is its primary mission and function, it’s secondary function is to provide child care to kids during the day, in many cases for families who would struggle to find that child care otherwise.

Knowing teachers and staff would need maximum planning time to matter how the school year starts, the board recently approved Olson’s recommendation to add two full days of planning, on Aug. 11-12, to the school calendar. Olson and the three school principals at Tuesday’s meeting echoed each other in saying the additional planning was invaluable, and that if COVID-19 numbers take a turn for the worse and more distance learning is necessary as a result, the student and family experience will be far better than it was last spring, when teachers and staff had eight days to come up with a distance learning plan once schools were shut down statewide.

At the heart of the improved distance learning plan is common teaching and learning platforms and common apps and software for teachers, students and families to use, Washington School Principal Denice Oliver explained.

Google Classroom is the main platform, with Ed Puzzle, Digital Whiteboard, See-Saw some of the apps that will be used. There is also software that will allow teachers to record themselves reading or lecturing or delivering some other type of lesson for students to watch not-live, but the teachers will be available to answer questions. If elementary students ever have to go to distance learning again, fourth-grade teacher Kim Davidson said that particular practice will be especially valuable.

“Elementary students need to see and hear their teachers; they need that interaction,” she said.

Highland School Principal Chris Trostad said teachers are already well-schooled on the digital platforms and distance-learning tools. “If we ever go back (to distance learning), it will be far superior than last spring based on this training,” he said. 

To that, Oliver said elementary students will use some of the software and apps even in the classroom in the fall, and that if they ever have to go back home to learn, they’ll be competent on how to use the tools and will maybe even be able to show their parents how it works.

Bubna credited CHS staff for not complaining about everything that’s being thrown at them this year. “Yes there are a lot of questions and some concerns, but there’s no complaining,” he said. “The teachers are a lot less apprehensive after the (Aug. 11-12) training. They’re more at ease. I know they’re not 100% at ease, but they’re feeling better.”

More back-to-school workshops are on the calendar before the first day of classes. Bringing in outside speakers and various welcome sessions, typically on similar workshop agendas of the past, are being nixed this year, Olson said, in favor of ample collaborative planning time for teachers and staff.

“The greatest gift we can give our teachers right now is time,” he said. “They need every bit of it because it’s a huge ask of our staff. It’s not an easy assignment.”