During the school board meeting on March 16, COVID-19 updates were shared after Gov. Tim Walz’s Executive Order for the school closure period from March 18 to 27 was announced on Sunday.
While the coronavirus update came near the end of the meeting, the conversation was on administrator’s and school board members’ minds before the meeting began. Superintendent Lee Westrum lead the discussion from the Minnesota Department of Education’s guidance to delivery of meals. He reiterated that the closure period is similar to Christmas in that students are not in a learning period, though, some teachers might send work home for students to complete.
As plans are being formulated for future distance learning, Westrum said e-learning will be included and that the school purchased 25 hotspots on Sunday to meet any connectivity needs. Board member Kent Schmidt and Westrum also noted that Spectrum and Arvig will be providing free internet for the remainder of the school year. Westrum is also in the process of checking with West Central Telephone.
“We’re trying to figure out how we can make sure we can connect with all kids. Equity is a big part of this from the department,” Westrum said. “We’re working hard on that.”
On March 18, paraprofessionals will call families about internet needs and their desire to be part of the food services available. The breakfast and lunch meals will be available from 10 a.m. to noon from Wednesday to Friday at the back school entrance, with food service employees providing the meals in the sack lunch format. Starting on Monday, March 23 meals will be delivered to families who sign up, according to Westrum. Meals will be delivered by bus drivers and paraprofessionals in school vans or buses.
The child care provision will also start on March 18 for designated workers, including those who work in the health care, emergency medical services, law enforcement, firefighters and other first responder fields, in the elementary school gym with space for playing and stations. The child care service at M-State will continue with additional space given to follow social distancing methods, according to Westrum.
Westrum also spoke about staff member care, such as those who have COPD, heart or lung disease, diabetes and are over 70 years old, being sent home. Throughout the closure period, employees will also get their base pay, according to Westrum.
Activities director and dean of students Norm Gallant noted that spring sports are suspended as long as the school is closed.
One of the questions board member Melissa Seelhammer brought up was how the schools will respond to students not completing their assignments if distance learning becomes a requirement. Westrum said students need to finish their work and monitoring of their work will happen but there has to be flexibility and sympathy in this time.
“We have to understand that this really is an extraordinary time and that without teachers that can be there with them a lot some of our kids are going to get varying degrees of support at home, and so we need to, I think, proceed very carefully and cautiously in that area,” Westrum said.
In sharing their administration reports, elementary principal Louis Rutten and middle high school principal Tyler Church noted events postponed including the Ice Cream for Books event on April 2 and questions on state and ACT testing.
“We’re looking forward to the challenge of delivering distance learning and I know our team will be real up to the challenge too, like Mr. Westrum said this morning we’ve been through an EF4 tornado so we can get through this too,” Rutten said, later adding, “I think when we talk about this distance learning stuff and connectivity and access and stuff, I think our kids are going to be surprising us at how well they can access content.”
Westrum and both principals also shared how this time will create growth for staff and better preparedness for future snow days. Staff members are also thinking of ways to support students during this time, such as possible math tutoring.
“We are going to be in a way better position to deliver materials to our kids after we go through this. It is a pain in the butt right now,” Church said. “Norm said it best the other day to me, he said, ‘I’m the dean of students that’s not going to have students and I’m the activities director that doesn’t have any activities.’”
When board member Ryan Damlo asked about keeping seniors informed on scholarships, Church said seniors were meeting on March 17 to discuss this and share their cell phone numbers to receive scholarship links and updates.
Another sudden change at the middle high school is the returning of four foreign exchange students to their home countries, with three foreign exchange students remaining enrolled, according to Church.
“Another drawback to all of this is that experience for them, not getting to finish their experience, they’ve had a very good year here but they’re not finishing it the way they obviously wanted to,” Church said.
Throughout the coronavirus updates, both Church and Westrum said they have received no complaints from parents and are grateful for the community’s response in these extraordinary times.