As decisions are continuously made about society’s interactions admist the coronavirus, Gov. Tim Walz announced a closure of K-12 schools starting on March 18. The closure period are not days that students will have to make up, according to Walz’s Executive Order 20-02. The Order also outlined specific ways students and families will continue receiving support from schools, such as food for students who opt in for this choice and child care services for specific families.
In announcements from area superintendents, hygiene was stressed, including washing hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue or into your elbow, avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth, to stay home when sick, and remain hydrated.
After Walz’s orders on Sunday, students returned to instruction for two days and a time of hearing plans for the possible distance learning, providing calming information on COVID-19 and allowing parents time to organize child care, according to Superintendent Lee Westrum.
“Kids are used to coming to school, they’re used to their teachers and their coaches and everybody. … School is a good, safe, calming place for them and we thought we needed a little bit of time,” Westrum said.
When the schools close on Wednesday, students will not have distance learning requirements since teachers are preparing for these.
“Distance Learning defined: Students engaging in distance learning have access to appropriate educational materials and receive daily interaction with their licensed teacher(s),” according to the Minnesota Department of Education’s website.
Westrum said the current thoughts for future distance learning are a combination of e-learning and textbook learning. For students grades fifth through 12th, their issued iPads would be brought home, though for those younger than this the focus would be less on e-learning since iPads are only available in the classroom, according to Westrum.
“It’s not the same as being in school, I think everybody knows that, but this is an extraordinary time and I think that the governor really summed it up well …. don’t let perfect get in the way of good, of doing the right thing and doing the best we can,” Westrum said. “It will not be perfect, but we’re going to do the best job that we can to help our students continue their education process through this closure and if there’s an additional closure through that as well.”
Outside of the possible future education plans, the current plans for the March 18-27 closure include food services and child care for parents who work in the health care, emergency medical services, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responder fields, as directed by Walz. At WDC, families can come to the school to pick up meals for their children from 10 a.m. to noon at the back of the school, with a grab and go lunch and breakfast for the next day, according to Westrum. After the first few days, families interested in the program will sign up for delivery since, as Westrum noted, coming to the school is a barrier in receiving the food.
Students with parents who work as health care professionals, first responders and WDC staff members will receive all-day child care at the elementary school, according to Westrum. The child care service run at M-State for children 16 months to preK will continue running as normal with accommodations for the designated workers as well.
“I really thank our parents for their flexibility through all of this. It puts a burden on them when school's not in session and I thank them for working with us so well and understanding what we’re trying to do,” Westrum said.
In a video update on Facebook on March 16, Verndale superintendent Paul Brownlow also shared plans for distance learning and social distancing measures for March 16 and 17. Throughout the school day, students learned about how to communicate with their teachers and their plans for distance learning beginning on March 30, according to Brownlow.
Brownlow explained by email that the school plans to take further direction from Governor Walz following this closure, "however, we would be prepared to provide distance learning for the remainder of the school year."
“This is a time not to be scared but to make sure that we’re taking some right steps to move forward as we get you ready for distance learning, but also remind you what you need to do when you’re not in school,” Brownlow said in the video.
During the two days prior to the closure, the social distancing methods included different passing periods, recesses and lunches, according to Brownlow.
“Now for some of you I know that this is going to seem somewhat funny but we are asking that you start to practice that because that is becoming more loud and clear as I’ve been watching the news as people are not heeding that warning,” Brownlow said in the video.
For the closure period, students are required to bring home materials that may be required for future distance learning, such as Chromebooks, textbooks and other supplies teachers instruct students to bring from their desks and lockers, according to Brownlow. Brownlow also mentioned that the people must call for permission to enter the school once this period begins.
In a second video on the school website, Brownlow and K-12 Verndale principal Arick Follingstad discussed food and child care services as well as internet questions. Verndale will provide food services for those interested and child care for designated workers. Follingstad said that families can fill out a breakfast and lunch delivery form if they are interested in having meals delivered to a certain location or pick them up at the school.
The child care will start on Wednesday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and as students enter the building they will be screened for symptoms, according to Brownlow. Families are to contact the school office about child care needs so that their employer can be verified.
In terms of technology, students will have their Chromebooks and in a survey of fifth to 12th grade students, 90% said they have internet access, according to Brownlow. If a family does not have access, Brownlow requests they contact the school for arrangements to be made.
Brownlow mentioned that the length of time for distance learning after March 30 is currently uncertain.
Before Walz’s orders to close the schools, activities and sports were canceled or postponed, from community education classes to open gym, a Wadena Concert Association concert, Wadena County Historical Society Allan Woodrow event and rehearsals for the Wadena Madhatters Community Theatre.
“You really start to understand … how much the schools are the hub of your community,” Westrum said. “All these great community events that we love being a part of all of a sudden, it’s just they’re not happening.”
As of Monday, Westrum is uncertain about graduation and prom as well as other future events. During a school board meeting on March 16, elementary principal Louis Rutten shared that preschool registration will be postponed and mailing registration items is likely instead. Rutten is uncertain about kindergarten registration. The decisions for future events depend on further orders from Walz.
Brownlow said that spring sport practices are optional and kindergarten round-up still occurred on March 16.
During the board meeting, Rutten and middle high school principal Tyler Church also mentioned testing that is scheduled. As of right now the state testing is still on the calendar and Rutten is not sure if schools are expected to complete those tests. Church said the ACT testing scheduled for juniors next week is an aspect they are still figuring out.
At the college level, schools are also planning for the learning that comes next. Minnesota State’s system chancellor Devinder Malhotra shared plans for extending spring break for all their campuses on March 12, with Wadena returning on March 30, according to their website. On March 16, the date was extended from a return of March 23.
At the Wadena campus, faculty are discussing alternative methods and how to meet the course, student, M-State’s accrediting body and the United States Department of Education standards. These methods possibly include online courses, web conferencing, correspondence courses and possibly smaller class sizes for specific programs if classes were to resume, according to interim executive director of public information and government affairs Peter Wielinski. Within the methods, Wielinski said faculty are looking to “how we might safely deliver education in ways that students can access.”
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to make available to our students the support services and the quality education that they’re expecting this semester. We want to see them be able to complete their studies and either move on towards employment or move on towards continued education or whatever their goals might be,” Wielinski said.
During the planning weeks, students and faculty have access to the facilities, though gatherings are discouraged and faculty are practicing social distancing within these environments, according to Wielinski. In a video posted on the school’s website on March 16, M-State president Carrie Brimhall said the semester will end on time and not cost students any additional money.
Wielinski also said students can call the support center phone line, which is open Monday through Thursday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Advisers, counselors and social workers will continue answering questions from academic planning to emergencies. The food shelf will be stocked and maintained as well, according to Wielinski.
M-State events larger than 100 people until May 1 have also been canceled, as directed by Malhotra on March 13, according to their website.
“At this point, I mean nobody really knows what’s coming up tomorrow, what things will be like next week or the week after, so like everyone else we’re taking this one step at a time. But we’re very clear on what guides us, providing education and services and making sure everybody stays well in doing that,” Wielinski said.
Assistance for online learning
For families with K-12 students or college students, Arvig announced on March 16 that a free internet service is being offered if schools remain closed due to COVID-19, according to an Arvig news release. Other internet providers like West Central Telephone Association have also announced they are looking at ways to provide connections to students in this unprecedented time. Visit with your local providers to hear more about how they may be able to help.
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