Back to school . . . back at home

By Sarah CR Clark

“It’s gonna be a first day of school unlike any we’ve seen,” Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz recently said while unveiling the state’s learning plan for the upcoming year.

As the summer winds down, educators and families are working hard to make the best of this pandemic, back-to-school season.

At Bugle press time, the Saint Public School District decided to begin the 2020-21 academic year in temporary distance learning with set dates for reevaluation at the ends of September and October.

The Roseville Area School District is planning to begin the year in blended learning, where students attend school in person at least two days per week. And the charter schools in our St. Paul neighborhood, Great River and Avalon, had yet to finalize their back-to-school plans. A full-time distance learning option will be available to any interested Minnesota family. A year ago, that could not have been imagined.

“This is the first beginning of the school year, in my life and my children, that I am not excited about,” Sulekha Ali confessed. Ali is a mother of four young children; two who are students at Saint Anthony Park Elementary School in the St. Paul Public School District.

“For health and safety reasons, I’m happy my children will be home. But I’m not excited about it at all. I would not wish distance learning on anyone,” she said, laughing.

Last spring Ali’s daughter, Hodan Hassan, then in fourth grade, managed distance learning successfully with a small amount of assistance from her mother. However distance learning was tricky for Ali’s kindergarten-aged son, Mohamed Hassan. “It was much more challenging, only ­because he’s younger and needed so much of my help,” Ali said.

In response to this kind of feedback from many parents and guardians with experiences like Ali, Saint Paul Public Schools officials said they hoped changes they have made this fall would make for better distance learning. “We are calling our new version of distance learning, Distance Learning 2.0,” the school district’s website states, promising personalized experiences for students, more synchronous learning (at the same time but not in the same place) and more time for students to collaborate with their peers and connect directly with their teachers.

Karen Duke, principal of St. Anthony Park Elementary School, is ready for the new school year and said, “I’m very confident the school district is thinking about all the aspects of this back-to-school process. The SAP Elementary staff was great last year. If anyone can do it again this year, we can.”

The principals of Murray Middle School and Como Park High School also said they were ready to begin this unprecedented year. Murray Principal Jamin McKenzie said, “I am 100 percent confident that we have the best staff to get the job done and an extremely supportive community.”

Yet, both principals recognize there will be challenges. Como Park High’s Kirk Morris explained, “Yes, we’ll do the online learning and 2.0 will be better than 1.0. Still, the social opportunities for students and staff will be lacking and we’ll need to get to know each other as best we can through a computer screen.”

Sam O’Brien, head of school at Great River School, reported his school was also considering starting the year with distance learning. Many Great River students and staff identify themselves as immune compromised, which left O’Brien feeling torn about the best way to proceed, he said, “Our society is not providing sufficient additional funding to create more transportation routes, or obtain additional space for school.”

Similarly, Tim Quealy, teacher and program coordinator at Avalon School, explained that their school planned to offer four days a week of distance learning and one day of in-person activities.

“We miss our kids and are excited to engage with them again, however we can,” he said.

Meanwhile, many teachers had to prepare multiple versions of lesson plans for this fall.

Erin Dooley, a Murray science teacher, spent a lot of her summer getting ready for Distance Learning 2.0, creating lessons that can be conducted virtually and, at some point, in regular classrooms. Over the summer, she also participated in Murray’s Equity and Restorative Justice Book Club and collaborated with the U of M Raptor Center to create virtual teaching around birds.

Tim Chase, another Murray science teacher, described his summer as taking “the classic ‘hurry up and wait’ approach” as he waited to hear from the superintendent and district staff.

“My preparation for the year has been . . . collaborating with co-teachers about tools we might consider for distance learning,” he said.

Still, the pandemic is wearing on people.

Amy Jo Henriksen, mother to a third grader at Falcon Heights Elementary, which is starting the year with blended learning, said, “I am not feeling great about school starting up again, mainly because of all the unknowns.”

She wonders whether teachers will be stretched too thin teaching both online and in person and fears in-school restrictions on students might negate any possible in-person benefits. And yet, Henriksen chooses to remain grateful.

“I am very thankful Minnesota is being thoughtful about how best to send kids safely back to school.”

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