The Park Rapids School Board on Monday approved plans to modify school schedules for Fridays, starting with Trimester 2.

As presented by principals Mike LeMier, Shawn Andress and Jeff Johnson, the schedule changes will begin Dec. 4 – the first Friday of Trimester 2 – and continue until state mandates regarding COVID-19 are lifted.

Effectively, this action means that on Fridays, class time at all three schools will be compressed into the morning, and teachers will remain on duty through 3 p.m.

Superintendent Lance Bagstad said Gov. Tim Walz recently issued two executive orders, requiring schools to add more teacher prep time to their schedules as soon as practicable. The principals’ plans will fulfill that mandate, he said.

Focus on the high school

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At the high school, Johnson said, the main difference is that the high school office will take attendance via a Google form on Fridays, while teachers will take attendance in class during the rest of the week.

The high school is already operating in hybrid learning mode, with alternating groups of students attending in person either Monday and Wednesday or Tuesday and Thursday, and everyone doing distance learning the rest of the time.

Johnson stressed that, with the foreshortened Friday schedule, teachers will use that afternoon time to do prep work and connect with distance learners, allowing them to provide uninterrupted instruction the rest of the week.

He said this will allow his staff to “have four quality days of education” a week, and that they “do believe four quality days is better than five quantity days of just trying to put stuff together.”

Century Middle School

Recalling that grades 7-8 have already moved to the hybrid model, Andress said her staff has found teaching hybrid and distance learning has been difficult. Nevertheless, she presented her COVID leadership team’s plan to move grades 5-6 into hybrid learning as well.

Andress reported that some of her teachers have provided distance instruction from home, either while temporarily isolating or on a longer-term basis. Meanwhile, all middle school teachers have distance learners in class, at least due to students moving in and out of quarantine.

Nevertheless, she stressed that students are being provided four full days of education a week, even while physically attending school only two days a week.

Andress said that having everybody distance learning on Friday, on the hybrid model, already allows teachers “some time to connect with families, to work on the grading modules, the replying to emails, the correcting, the preparing, the uploading of videos, the collaboration time with their colleagues.”

“There is still ongoing discussion about what is best for what middle school needs,” she said, reporting that students and families are asking to go back to in-person instruction five days a week, and staff leadership is having “thoughtful conversations, and at times difficult conversations” about learning.

“We are seeing students falling through the cracks, left and right, through distance learning,” said Andress. “When I look at our numbers of students that are struggling, our numbers are high, and that’s not OK. … We need to do something different.”

Describing how the current Friday schedule is working for seventh and eighth graders, Andress said, “It’s a marathon. Is what we’re doing working right now? For some kids, yes. For the majority of our students, I would say no, it’s not. We can’t continue to do what we’ve always done and get better results.”

Proposing a Friday morning bloc of distance learning, Andress said students will be expected to report for attendance in their first-hour class via Google Classroom and check for assignments in their other classes. In addition, she proposed inviting select students on campus on Friday mornings for focused, small-group instruction and interventions based on grade-level standards.

She said this may mean 60-70 students will be on campus during Friday mornings, and teachers will have the afternoon to do prep work, etc.

Century Elementary

LeMier voiced feeling lucky to have K-4 students in person, but credited his staff with making it possible by taking precautions against community spread.

Nevertheless, he said teachers are struggling to keep up with the “constant shell game” of students in and out of school due to being exposed to COVID-19 or not feeling well.

“Our staff, right now, is sprinting and racing a marathon,” he said. “I worry that they are going to hit a point where they can’t continue.”

Under LeMier’s plan for Friday mornings, students will arrive at the school as usual, eat breakfast in their classrooms and engage in reading, math and specialist instruction. They will be dismissed at noon with a “grab and go” lunch.

LeMier said staff is still working out how to provide library, music and physical education time to students who normally have them on Friday.

His Friday afternoon schedule focuses on teachers planning for distance learning, connecting with students and their families, and sharing collaborative activities and professional development opportunities with their team. He said this will keep teachers “physically, mentally and emotionally healthy.”

School-age care

Community Education director Jill Dickinson tied the principals’ schedule modifications in with her proposal to change “emergency child care,” for emergency workers, to simply “school-age care,” and make it available to whomever needs it.

Dickinson asked for the school board’s blessing to offering the Century Adventures afterschool program to all families from noon to 5:30 p.m. on Friday, except grades 6-7 would be dismissed at 3 p.m.

She said the program could employ school support staff and classroom space that otherwise will not be utilized on Friday afternoons.

Cost per student will be $4 a day, she said, regardless of early-out days.

However, Dickinson said, if Century Elementary moves to the hybrid model, “we would like to do the same thing, except charge the families $10 a student, since it is all-day,” and to encourage accountability for regular attendance so that the program doesn’t end up being overstaffed.

Dickinson said that under a hybrid model, preschoolers would continue attending only on the days they normally attend school.

Motion and board comments

School board member Gary Gauldin moved to approve the modified Friday schedule as presented.

Board chair Sherry Safratowich voiced concern about how students’ caregivers will be affected by the schedule change.

“It’s highly important for this message to get out to families as soon as possible,” she said, adding that she is “very concerned” about “our kids at home.”

She also stressed her expectation that all staff will be on duty on Friday afternoons.

Board member Dennis Dodge asked whether the schedule will revert to normal after COVID-19. Bagstad confirmed that when the governor’s executive orders are lifted, “we plan on bringing kids back” as before.

Gauldin’s motion passed without dissent.