This time of year, school boards are normally headlong into spring events and moving towards policies and plans for the next school year. With Governor Tim Walz’s order to close all schools beginning this past Wednesday, the major focus now is response to ongoing changes and preparedness. Per the governor, schools are to remain closed until March 27. Until then, all education will be done online and just what that means is yet to be seen.
Sitting four to five feet from each other, the Rushford-Peterson School Board received a Coronavirus Response update from Superintendent John Thompson at the March 16 board meeting. Thompson detailed how superintendents in the state received an email March 14 regarding Walz’s considerations and a two-hour head start on the Sunday press conference for the closure announcement. “It was top-secret, so to speak,” said Thompson, adding the information was asked to be kept from anyone other than superintendents, including school principals.
“I have to give Minnesota credit,” he continued. “They gave us warning before they went public and gave us time, until Wednesday, to close.” The eight days of closure, besides limiting contact between students, staff, and others, will allow district staff to formulate a plan should the closure be extended beyond March 27. For now, schools are slated to begin instruction again March 30. However, universities and other schools around the state have already begun extending closures and moving to online instruction-only through the remainder of the school year. “We’re scheduled to be back the 30th. That seems unlikely right now,” he added.
“The task in front of us is truly a great challenge,” stressed Thompson. “Our students are missing school right in that critical development time. It’s important that we come up with a way to find instruction in a trying time like this.”
Representing the board, Chairman John Linder met March 15 with the full administrative team, district business office, nutrition staff, and the activities director to set the path going forward. Schools were given the option to hold classes March 16 and 17. While giving families discretion for attendance, R-P opted to hold classes and 11% of the student body was out in comparison to a typical 5% during cold/flu season. The atmosphere was notably different, however, as Thompson noted.
“For the seniors, it might be their last two days. I certainly hope not,” said Thompson. “I saw a student carrying her belongings and artwork out of school. It dawned on me, she was packing up as if she may not come back. For me that was sad to see.”
The senior class trip and sophomore class trip to Washington, D.C. have been canceled, as have been all extracurricular activities. Consideration for prom and graduation will come at a later date. “I hate to think of getting that far. We don’t want to talk about it, but they’re very real possibilities,” noted Middle/High School Principal Jake Timm. “If we get to where people say, ‘Gosh, you overreacted and over prepared,’ we’re okay with that.”
“The mental health of young people is important. The state is working to budget for it,” added Thompson. “I can’t help but think of our kids and how they’re feeling about this”
The district has a slight advantage going to the planning stages having already worked to get devices in the hands of students in grades 3-12 through its 1:1 program. Technology Director Corey Mattson is working with staff to find options to provide instruction in whatever method works best for them and students. Any student, in those grades, without a device will be provided one and the district will be providing an internet hot-spot for any student without internet service at home. Staff is still working to determine how distance learning will work for younger students.
Schools have a compounded challenge. Not only do they need to determine methods to provide distance learning, but they are also being asked to provide food for those students that want it, during the eight day closure. “We don’t even know if the state has clarity on that; how it’ll be paid or made available to our students,” noted Thompson.
One portion of the pandemic response that does appear to have some clarity for the district is childcare for staff, medical personnel, first responders, and other essential workers. It began this past Wednesday and will extend through April 1. Numbers could fluctuate from 10-50 children in care and the district is being mandated by the state to provide transportation, if necessary.
While the building will be completely shut down and locked, cleaning of the facility continues. The district has purchased an ionizer machine, which santizes each room and large gathering spaces, from top to bottom, utilizing a hydrogen peroxide spray. While convenient now, it will be an advantage to the school in the future as well as it’s able to clean areas in minutes rather than days. It will be funded through long-term facility maintenance.
Families will be kept apprised of additional updates via JMC email blasts, Google pages, and the Remind notification system. Information to all will be provided via Facebook and the district’s website.
The next regularly scheduled board meeting is Monday, April 20, at 5:30 p.m., in the forum room. The public is encouraged to attend if statewide precautionary measures have been lifted.