ST. CLOUD – Since Willie Jett took the helm of the St. Cloud school district eight years ago, he's shepherded the district's 10,000 students through tumultuous and triumphant times.

During his tenure, Somali students at Technical High School staged a walkout amid tensions with classmates, and a construction-related fire at Apollo High School in 2018 forced the district to transition to distance learning long before the pandemic required it.

The district built a $104.5 million high school after voters approved funding in a referendum in 2016 and it continues to be a leader among districts for initiatives such as co-teaching, dyslexia screening and English-learner education.

In a written response to the Star Tribune, Jett, 56, talked about students returning to in-person learning, reaching underserved communities and keeping teachers safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Answers have been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Elementary students returned to in-person learning in early February. How did the transition go?

A: Our return to in-person learning went really well. Students and school staff were excited to see one another again.

Q: What still needs to happen before secondary students return to full in-person learning on March 10?

A: Each school has partnered with leadership teams to review routines and practices that help keep our community safe. We have created videos and fliers to help students, families and staff know what to expect.

Another part of our preparation is for our buildings and grounds teams to move furniture back into classrooms and reset our classroom furniture. We're also revisiting instructional strategies because our teachers are teaching students learning in-person and at home.

Q: In St. Cloud school district, about 20% of students are in special education, 23% of students are English-learners, and 57% are eligible for free and reduced lunch, a common indicator of poverty. How has the district continued to reach and serve these students during the pandemic?

A: Each school had a SEL (social emotional learning) team whose primary focus was to develop connections with students and families. This team also monitored students' attendance. When attendance issues arose, the team members conducted home visits to ensure students got reconnected to classrooms and schools.

We also offered tutoring and homework assistance during the day, after school and in the evenings. Licensed teachers provided individual and small group supports for any students virtually.

Each student with special needs has a case manager and related service providers who follow them throughout their week. These adults collect daily data and make sure students are making progress toward their annual goals.Equipment is delivered to homes and home visits keep families connected to their school and teachers.

When in the hybrid learning model, we were able to bring many of our English-learners in every day rather than every other day. We increased our communication and outreach with multilingual families. Strategies included the creation of a dedicated COVID-19 webpage in Somali and Spanish, a phone hotline staffed by Somali and Spanish speakers, and videos and written materials whenever possible. Additionally, district leaders appeared monthly on our local Somali TV station to provide information and answer questions.

With each learning model, we implemented different strategies for serving meals to students. These strategies included "grab & go" from the schools and direct delivery of meals to neighborhoods.

Our district utilizes data from formative classroom assessments, local benchmark assessments and progress-monitoring tools, among others, to track student progress. We will be administering our annual climate survey this spring to gather stakeholder feedback on topics like engagement and relationships, and then we will be conducting focus groups with different student groups.

Q: How is the district making sure teachers feel safe and prepared to be back in the classroom?

A: In a word — vaccines. We are excited that all staff who chose to be vaccinated have now received both doses — almost 1,400 employees — and we thank CentraCare, Stearns County Public Health and the state for their work in ensuring District 742 is vaccinated. In addition, since last spring, we have consistently followed MDH and CDC guidelines in keeping both staff and students safe, including masking and social distancing.

Q: Do you think the pandemic has forever changed how public education is delivered?

A: Yes! Our students, families, teachers, staff and administrators have been creative and adaptable during this time and persevered through incredibly challenging circumstances. While it may be tempting to want to go back to the way things were, our school communities have put so much work into changing how, when and where we learn and teach that we simply have to identify the great new practices that have emerged. These practices can get woven in to the traditional ways of delivering education to create an even better experience for our students.

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299