The planned start of the 2021-22 school year means ‘near normal’ in Wadena County area school districts. Open houses are planned, school boards have approved the opening plans, sports practices started and new teachers are completing orientations.
With school about two weeks away and COVID-19 cases increasing, these are the intended plans as of Aug. 23 with changes that could come based on state, federal and local decisions. The Pioneer Journal asked area superintendents about the plans through a survey, which could be filled out electronically, via email or over the phone.
The uncertainty shown through the pandemic also speaks caution alongside the excitement of in-person learning.
“If I learned anything from the last year and a half, it is that things can, and regularly do change in a flash with little or no notice,” Menahga Superintendent Kevin Wellen said in an email. “Perhaps the greatest source of pride I walk into the new school year with, is knowing the grit, flexibility and tenacity of our staff, our students and our community that allowed us to stay in person ALL of last year preserving some of that normalcy in a most abnormal year.”
You’ll find the districts’ plans are similar, including a reminder on changes due to mandates and guidance from the Minnesota Departments of Education and Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health and education organizations. MDH currently has recommendations, and largely not requirements, for the 2021-22 school year.
“We are grateful for local control as we start this school year and plan to continue to prioritize in-person learning as it aligns with our Cardinal Commitment of Climate & Culture, providing an optimal teaching and learning environment,” wrote Staples-Motley Superintendent Shane Tappe. “We are proud of the way our teachers, support staff and administration rose to the challenges of the past year and a half, and are confident that we will handle any challenges with our core priorities at the forefront of any decision we make.”
The plans emphasize in-person learning with five days of classroom learning, specialists back in their classrooms, students eating in the cafeteria, drinking fountains open and limited to no social distancing. Free meals will continue through the school year. Families are encouraged to still fill out the free and reduced lunch forms as portions of school funding for academic programs and hiring additional teachers are determined through the form.
“Educators need to do what educators do best; serve students,” wrote New York Mills Superintendent Blaine Novak. “Getting back to near normal allows our staff to serve the students of New York Mills Public School in the best manner possible.”
"I am also looking forward to our teaching staff being able to focus on one method of teaching as opposed to in person and online."
— Eric Koep
COVID-19 vaccines are not required for students or staff, and neither are masks during or after school. Some districts state that masks are encouraged and remind people they are welcome to wear masks for their health and safety if they would like. Masks are required on school buses due to a federal mandate.
“It will be great to see all the students and staff this fall in a setting that is closer to what we experienced pre-pandemic,” wrote Wadena-Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum. “It will (be) nice to see smiles. Our students and staff did a great job following the mask mandate but I have missed seeing the smiles from everyone at WDC.”
A few mitigation measures like encouraging hand washing, cleaning protocols and strong HVAC systems for air flow and quality will remain. The state also requires reporting positive COVID-19 cases, and the schools emphasize personal health screenings as a “good general health practice.” Students and staff are asked to be aware of symptoms and stay home if they’re not feeling well. The state recommends having testing available with grants offered for the costs.
“We’re empowering families as well, so if their child or children are sick please keep them home to make sure that we don’t all of a sudden start to spread the disease,” said Verndale Superintendent Paul Brownlow.
Districts will also partner with county public health departments and local healthcare organizations to monitor COVID-19 cases in the community. The community partnerships include superintendents working together and offering advice on different situations, too, which will benefit the area and communities as a whole, as Brownlow said.
“Perhaps the biggest challenge facing schools is reacting to the current realities each district faces throughout the year regarding COVID spread and balancing conflicting community expectations,” Novak wrote.
"If I learned anything from the last year and a half, it is that things can, and regularly do change in a flash with little or no notice."
— Kevin Wellen
While “anything can change,” as Brownlow said, the districts are awaiting more information on quarantine time for students and staff who are considered close contacts of a positive COVID-19 case.
“Our plan is to inform people and not require a lengthy quarantine like last year...but if we have big outbreaks I think we might need to become more stringent on that,” wrote Bertha-Hewitt Superintendent Eric Koep. “The biggest challenge will come if we are forced to follow similar protocols like last year; if the state steps in and requires masking and such.”
Districts are not required to offer a distance learning option. If having it is possible, the online option must have teachers who teach with a school district or charter school or are a Minnesota approved online provider.
Here’s the districts’ plans for distance learning:
Bertha-Hewitt: There will be no distance learning.
Menahga: There will be no distance learning.
New York Mills: Considering a model to offer the option.
Staples-Motley: Offered on a case-by-case basis.
Verndale: Families can reach out to principal Katie Bolland at 218-445-5184 extension 313 to learn about distance learning options. The district is encouraging in-person learning as much as possible.
Wadena-Deer Creek: The option will be offered through an approved online provider for kindergarten to sixth grade students. A one semester commitment is required.
Unlike last year, switching between the different learning models of in-person, hybrid and distance learning is not expected. The number of local cases and state requirements could impact this.
“We’re looking forward to having our students and staff both back in the building, you know building connections, relationships and engaging in the learning process,” Brownlow said.
The districts' full opening plans are available on their websites.