There are monitors on the buses to ensure social distancing. Temperature checks and health screening questions at the door, followed by mandatory hand-washing. Lunch comes prepackaged and must be eaten at classroom desks, carefully spaced 6 feet apart. Hanging out with friends in the hallway is not an option.
In what may be a preview of the year to come, a small number of Minnesota schools are bringing students back for a “hybrid” version of summer school, split between in-person and online instruction. More than three months after schools abruptly shut their doors and shifted to distance learning, it’s a baby step toward normalcy for students and teachers — albeit one that comes with a long list of rules and considerable costs.
Those hurdles are significant enough that a majority of schools decided to stay online this summer. Of the more than 550 public school districts and charter schools in Minnesota, just 45 opted to bring students back. But at the schools giving hybrid summer school a try, leaders are hopeful that the benefits of in-person connection will outweigh the costs and potential risks of opening back up amid the pandemic.
“[Distance learning] just wasn’t meeting all the needs of all of our kids in the same way it would having them in the classroom,” said Tricia St. Michaels, director of student services for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale school district. “We knew we had to take advantage of the opportunity to have some kids in person so we could really get back to what traditional education would look like.”
It’s not yet clear what education will look like in the 2020-21 academic year.
State officials have directed schools to make plans for three separate scenarios: one resembling normal school operations, in which students return to school without strict social distancing; one where students stay home for distance learning; and one that combines online instruction and in-person classes, with significant social distancing requirements. A formal decision is expected late this month.
For the most part, summer school programs are following guidelines similar to those that would be used for hybrid instruction this fall. Some rules are stricter, including capacity limits; just nine students and one teacher can be in a classroom at any time. Allowing for physical distancing means students sit in every other seat, or every third seat, on the bus.
Schools are urged to check students’ temperatures at the door, encourage mask wearing and ensure that students don’t share classroom supplies, though they are allowed some flexibility in setting their own policies.
In the Fosston School District in northern Minnesota, middle and high school students attending summer school to earn missed credits have been completing work at tables spread 6 feet apart inside a gymnasium.
Students are divided into morning and afternoon shifts to ensure small class sizes.
“The biggest challenge is scheduling, but it’s all worked well because the staff involved have been problem solvers,” said Sue Chase, the district superintendent.
Younger students in Fosston get a temperature check before entering the building, while older kids are asked screening questions about their health. Masks are available but not required for students or staff.
Chase, noting that the community has had a relatively small number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, said she’s hopeful districts will continue to be allowed to set some of their own rules if schools reopen in the fall.
Summer classes for high school students in the Forest Lake school district, north of the metro area, are still online. But about 300 younger students are back at school, spending their day with the same small group of peers.
Meals are eaten in the classroom and even bathroom breaks are coordinated, ensuring that students don’t mix or congregate.
Superintendent Steve Massey said teachers are dedicating a fair amount of time to teaching about and encouraging the practice of physical distancing — especially with elementary students who might have a harder time remembering the rules. Masks are recommended but not required.
“Younger kids are using walking ropes so they can grab a rope at 6 to 8 feet apart and maintain that space,” he said.
Eager to return
School leaders across the state said they’ve encountered mixed reactions from teachers and students as they considered whether to reopen for the summer.
Some were uncomfortable about the idea and equally uncertain about heading back in the fall. Others jumped at the chance to return to face-to-face instruction, if only part time.
At the High School for Recording Arts, a St. Paul charter school with its own recording studio, math and science labs are conducted in the school’s parking lot.
Recording sessions — a favorite aspect of the school experience for many students — are again happening, but in a studio set up to accommodate physical distancing.
There’s also space, sometimes outdoors, for one-on-one meetings with counselors and other service providers.
A large number of the school’s students are homeless, transient or living in poverty, and they typically depend on school for meals and other services, in addition to academics.
Tony Simmons, the school’s executive director, said the school has seen a surge in students who want to attend summer school because of the chance to see classmates and trusted teachers and staff members in person.
That’s made for a lot of careful planning to ensure that anyone who wants to come to school can.
“When you have a large student population but a small number you can support in a space, questions around equity arise,” Simmons said.
In the Winona school district, officials tried to come up with rotating schedules for high school students that would avoid mixing different groups during the day — another recommended step from health officials.
They determined it was unworkable and opted to hold most of summer school online and offer students the opportunity to come in one day a week to meet one-on-one with teachers.
Emily Cassellius, principal at the Winona Area Learning Center and Goodview Elementary, said even those short sessions are enough to make the difference for students who have struggled with distance learning.
“There were a handful of students that really thrived” with distance learning, she said. “But for a majority of the students, getting them into the school has been really helpful.”