Students and families ended a school year like no other in St. Paul last week, but for Superintendent Joe Gothard, there wasn't a lot of time to look back.
During a virtual meeting he hosted at year's end, Gothard was peppered with questions about the future, specifically, what is school going to look like in the fall?
It is a quandary facing every school leader in the state, and the answer isn't easy: Stay tuned.
Districts and charter schools have been directed by the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to create contingency plans around three scenarios: in-person instruction, distance learning or a hybrid of the two. This week, MDE and the state Department of Health plan to release guidelines to help with the shaping of those plans.
Then, the two departments — working with the governor's office — plan to announce by the week of July 27 which option looks to be the safest for the fall.
MDE is allowing districts to use a hybrid of in-person instruction and remote learning for summer school. St. Paul decided against it, partly out of concern that there wasn't enough time to develop a plan to protect the health of special-needs students, Kate Wilcox-Harris, the district's chief academic officer, told school board members.
St. Paul made the move to distance learning on April 6 and had experience putting iPads in the hands of all students thanks to a technology levy approved by voters in 2012.
In April, the Star Tribune asked parents statewide for their views on distance learning, and the survey drew more than 500 responses.
Kelly Donahue, who has two children attending schools in St. Paul's Highland Park neighborhood, gave the district high marks and said in an interview later that she was impressed that the school system was making home deliveries of the devices and that officials seemed determined to keep students focused on platforms with which they were familiar.
"They are not having my kids go to six different places," said Donahue, who teaches online in the Minnesota State system. She added she did wish, however, that her children had more work to do.
Distance learning had its detractors, among them Zuki Ellis, a St. Paul school board member and parent who spoke recently of her frustrations with technical glitches and the ins and outs of various apps.
To prepare for the fall, Gothard told parents that he formed a planning team weeks ago that is looking at issues like school access and scheduling, and cleaning and disinfection. Social distancing would be observed if full-time in-person instruction resumed. In a hybrid model, students would attend school in-person part-time and in smaller groups.
"When not at school, students will be expected to complete teacher-assigned work at home," the district added of any hybrid plan.
Gothard also has promised a "Distance Learning 2.0" that he says will be stronger than the programming already in place owing in large part to input from parents and staff members. He also struck an optimistic note.
With its levy and now its experience with distance learning, Gothard said the district, which has suffered from enrollment losses, could be in a position to compete for students "in a new and different way."