The Park Rapids School Board on Monday discussed back-to-school plans for the 2020-21 school year.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad presented a slide deck provided by the Minnesota departments of education (MDE) and health (MDH), titled Stay Safe MN Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 School Year.

Released on July 30, the plan discusses three safe learning models: distance learning, hybrid learning (with some students staying home and those at school practicing social distancing), and in-person learning.

Referring to the plan’s stated goal to prioritize in-person learning, he said, “There’s no substitute for in-person learning … especially for those younger students.”

Bagstad said the area schools might practice at least two of these models at the same time. To determine which one applies here, he directed board members to the plan’s “magic formula,” which depends on the total number of active COVID-19 cases countywide for every 10,000 residents. The resulting figure is described as the 14-day county-level case rate.

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Depending on the case rate, schools may either re-open for in-person learning, move to hybrid learning – high school first, then all students – and finally move toward distance learning.

“We will have school, one way or another,” said Bagstad. “Are we going to be in person? Well, it depends. We don’t really know at this point.”

As of Monday, he noted, Hubbard County had an all-time total of 28 positive tests for COVID-19, with a population of about 21,000. Based on the current 14-day period, Bagstad said the county’s case rate was 3.1. However, he reminded the school board, the first day of school is weeks away, and the county was predicted to hit its peak of COVID-19 cases in late August.

He acknowledged that special consideration may be given to issues affecting the Pine Point and Ponsford communities in Becker County, which are part of the district. Meanwhile, the plan requires masks, personal protective equipment (PPE), hygiene practices and daily cleaning for both in-person or hybrid learning. It limits visitors, requires regular health screenings and bans large-group activities that do not allow social distancing.

Hybrid learning further requires six-foot social distancing, and limits facilities and buses to 50 percent capacity.

Bagstad said that the state is providing a cloth mask for each student and staff member, plus three disposable masks and a face shield for each teacher.

He said an overall back-to-school plan will probably be brought to the school board for review at its next meeting. Details still to be determined, he said, include how students will to lunch and between classrooms, how to arrange distance learning for students whose families want it, and planning “A day” and “B day” schedules for hybrid learning, with each half of the student body attending on alternating days.

“It’s exciting and it’s scary,” said Bagstad. “We don’t know what it’s going to look like, but I think – just like the Boy Scouts – we need to be prepared and try to do the best we can with the resources that we have.”

Principals comment

Principals at all three schools asked the school board in advance for “permission or forgiveness” as they hammer out details for the beginning of the school year.

High School Principal Jeff Johnson said there are a lot of unknowns. He discussed holding his school’s open house virtually, with videos posted on the internet, and preparing teachers to use Google Classroom.

Johnson said last year’s freshmen-only first day of school won’t work this fall. For the first two days of school, he suggested bringing in half of each class one day, the other half the next, to issue electronic devices and discuss how instruction will take place.

“I’m not prepared to tell you right now what I would like the first week to look like,” he said.

Middle School Principal Shawn Andress said it is challenging to teach students in grades 5-8 to walk down the hallway keeping “tight to the right” and their hands to themselves, but last spring they showed it could be done.

“We’re going to learn lots of new things about each other and about ourselves and what it means to be a different kind of a community,” she said.

Andress suggested changing class schedules, possibly setting aside “some of the things that we’ve worked really hard to bring forward” in recent years, and focusing on how to “take care of ourselves and our communities.”

“I think the hardest thing, for me personally and probably for a lot of my staff, is just being OK with the fact that it’s going to be imperfect,” said Elementary Principal Michael LeMier. “It’s going to be frustrating at times, and we’re going to be dissatisfied sometimes, because we want to be everything for all of our kids, for all of our families.”

He stressed the importance of resocializing children who haven’t been around other families’ kids for several months.

“We’re going to spend a lot of time just getting them acclimated to school again,” he said. “My teachers and my kids are going to be exhausted the first couple of weeks.”

Bagstad said Transportation Supervisor Cindy Leach also faces a difficult task, planning how to get students to school.

“She’s a champion and she’s going to work through it,” he said. “We’re going to come up with, probably, some different scenarios.”