Here we are approaching the last days of July. Summer is moving fast and everyone wants to know what the new school year will bring us. At this point, I can’t predict that. By the time this is printed it is my hope that we know what scenario we will open with in September. As I put my words and thoughts into this editorial, I am listening to the announcement that masks will be required starting this Saturday. This will apply to all schools K-12. We will be reviewing the Executive Order and determining how we will address that at ISD #1.
As you may know there are three scenarios that we have been preparing for throughout the summer. Scenario 1 - In-person learning for all students, Scenario 2 - Hybrid model - combination of distance learning and in-person learning and Scenario 3 - full-time distance learning.
It is most everyone’s hope to return to school, if we can do it safely. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will issue that direction the last week of July.
What have we done this summer to prepare? I want to share with the community the different things that are happening in the background so we as a school can be as prepared as possible for students when they start the new year. Here are a list of activities that we have been doing to get prepared:
1. We have surveyed our parents and students regarding their experiences with distance learning in the spring. We received responses from 439 families. The data showed us we did some things well, and some areas we need to address. One area to address has to do with our delivery platform of instructional material. In the spring when we quickly jumped to distance learning we allowed our teachers to deliver instruction using the platform they were comfortable with. That created challenges due to the fact that we had several different platforms being used and not all families were comfortable using the different platforms. In the fall, all teachers and paraprofessionals K-12 will be using the Canvas platform. We will provide training for our staff prior to the school year. We are also looking for opportunities to help our parents learn more about the platform so they can be informed and able to help their child if they are struggling with the system.
2. We also found out that not having devices for our elementary students was a challenge. We are able to use a portion of our Cares Act funding to purchase iPads for all students K-5 and we will provide a Mac laptop for our sixth graders. Students in grades 7-12 already have access to their own computers in the high school one-to-one program.
3. We have also been made aware of connectivity issues with areas of our district. That is one of our big challenges that we do not currently have an answer for yet. We have areas in our district that do not have access even when they use hot spots, etc. This is an area we will continue to work on.
4. We also learned that as helpful as instructional videos were at times in the spring, students wanted to be able to watch their own teacher(s) presenting the instruction in the videos, not someone else teaching the lesson. Again we will address that through training and the use of Canvas district-wide K-12.
5. We are reviewing options for bus transportation in the hybrid model. This will pose challenges as we move forward.
As we reviewed the data collected, we created a number of committees made up of a variety of staff members to address concerns as well as the requirements of the directives from MDE. The topics we are focusing on are: Academic progress, scheduling, social emotional learning, staff professional development, communication, transportation, health and safety and food service. Some groups have met several times and have been planning for weeks. Others are just getting started due the issues they will be addressing. I am proud of our staff for the work they have done and are doing this summer. We are doing what we can to be as prepared as possible for September of 2020.
Regardless of which scenario we return to in September, school will be different. One thing we all need to be aware of is that what we do in education in the future will be different. Our instructors have learned new instructional methods due to the challenges of distance learning. We will be better at what we do because of those experiences. My personal challenge and the challenge I put out to my staff is pretty simple: Education will look and be different than what we remember from last year or the year before. We can’t fit what we used to do into these scenarios. As educators we need to look at the scenarios and determine what we need to do to deliver good, quality instruction. When it comes down to it, good instruction is good instruction, regardless of the scenario of delivery method. Our challenge is to apply this motto to all three scenarios whether it is the in-person model, hybrid model or distance learning.
As we move forward, I ask for your patience and grace for our school district and all of our employees and students as well. I will ask you to have patience and grace for each other. We are in uncharted territories as far as how and what we need to do. The uncertainties of the future have created anxieties and an uneasiness for many. Be kind to each other as we move forward. Challenges will come up, and we will do what is needed to address them. We will continue to build our plans for the future and we will be ready for the start of the 2020 school year.
Dan Stifter is the superintendent of Aitkin Public Schools.