Several of Minnesota’s largest school districts are pushing back the start of the academic year, saying they need more time to sort out teaching assignments, finalize plans for remote instruction and monitor the spread of COVID-19 in their communities.
For the first time in recent memory, a sizable number of the state’s students won’t be back to school on the Tuesday after Labor Day, or at all that week.
As recently as mid-August, most of the state’s schools were still planning on a Sept. 8 start. But a growing number of districts have since rearranged their calendars and moved the first day of school to Sept. 14 or later. Among those planning for a mid-September start: Anoka-Hennepin, Inver Grove Heights, Lakeville, Osseo, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, St. Cloud, Wayzata, West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan and White Bear Lake.
In hastily called emergency school board meetings and messages to parents, school leaders have apologized for the last-minute changes and asked for patience — but said they need more time to get ready. Some districts that have pushed back the start date have already been scrambling to revise their instructional plans, shifting from hybrid instruction to distance learning or opting to start the year with remote instruction and phase in students’ return later this fall.
“As we got closer to the finish line, we realized we needed a little more time for those things,” said Osseo Area Schools Superintendent Cory McIntyre.
Osseo board members meeting in a Friday emergency session voted to start the year with distance learning on Sept. 14 and move students into hybrid instruction two weeks later.
McIntyre said the district was still trying to finalize teachers’ classroom assignments. He said administrators and teachers need more time to get a handle on what they’ll be doing and who they’ll be teaching this fall and to make sure the district is prepared to launch its full-time distance-learning program for students who have selected it. About a quarter of Osseo students plan to remain at home for the year.
“It’s only four more days,” he said, “but every day right now matters.”
In an Aug. 19 memo to parents, Wayzata Public Schools leaders said the delayed start “will give staff much-needed, additional preparation time to deliver the highest-quality instruction within the new learning models,” adding that the extra week will also give teachers and principals more time to plan for delayed student orientations.
Anoka-Hennepin school leaders revised their district’s calendar in an Aug. 24 meeting, saying that “preparations since late spring and guidance from the Minnesota Safe Learning Plan and public health data led to the decision.”
In many districts, teachers have pushed back against school reopening plans, saying they are worried about their safety and the scramble to reopen before schools are ready or teachers have had time to prepare for their assignments.
Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state teachers union, has repeatedly called on school administrators to delay the start of the school year if they aren’t fully prepared to operate amid the pandemic.
“You think about the start date of a school year and it seems very arbitrary at this point,” she said this week. “A lot of school calendars were developed a year or two ago.”
Several districts plan to use the week after Labor Day to reach out to students and families, either virtually or in individual, in-person conferences.
With large-group gatherings banned, schools can’t host traditional orientation sessions or big meet-the-teacher events. But they have much to share with students and families, including introducing them to new rules and procedures on things ranging from wearing a mask to where to walk in the hallway.
In the Inver Grove Heights district, spokeswoman Katie Sheridan said the delayed start will give the district time to “familiarize students and parents with the brand-new school format and the health and safety measures that will be in place.”
School leaders said they need more time than usual to check in with families, especially if students will start school remotely or be in the classroom only a couple days a week.
Northfield Public Schools Superintendent Matt Hillmann said his district typically invites elementary students in for quick meetings with their teachers before the start of the school year. But this year, the district is planning to give students at all grade levels a longer time slot where they can meet their teachers — and provide a window into how they’ve been coping with all the disruptions of the past several months.
Hillmann said teachers will be interested in how students are doing with their academics, but that’s not the main point. First, he said, they want to know what stress students may be carrying into a new school year, from the pandemic, distance learning, the economic downturn and the ongoing public reckoning with racism in Minnesota and elsewhere.
“We wanted to make sure we have a chance to really sit with families and hear: How has it been going for you? How has it been going for your child?” he said.