State officials weigh an array of plans for students, classes in fall

The uncertainty of what will happen with school-age children this fall is weighing heavily on families, teachers and school administrators. […]

Tim Walz official photo

The uncertainty of what will happen with school-age children this fall is weighing heavily on families, teachers and school administrators. For parents who have children with special needs, the question is even more pressing. 

Daren Korte, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), cited additional challenges for students with disabilities. One recommendation from MDE is to not have teachers or other staff go into students’ homes. “There are far too many variables to keep staff and others safe,” Korte said. 

Well-being or well child checks have occurred with staff meeting with the family outside on the lawn or during a socially distant walk. “Actual services only take place in the school setting, where there are far fewer variables.” 

Three options were planned for fall, with Walz announcing a decision the last week of July after this issue of Access Press went to press. MDE is working with the Department of Health on guidance for masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Information will be ready soon. 

The first scenario is in-person learning for all students. Schools would create as much space between students and teachers as feasible during the day, but won’t be held strictly to enforcing six feet of social distancing during primary instructional times in classrooms. This plan would be implemented if cases of COVID-19 in Minnesota stabilize and/or improve. 

The second is a hybrid model with strict social distancing and capacity limits. Schools must limit the overall number of people in facilities and transportation vehicles to 50 percent maximum occupancy. Sufficient social distancing with at least six feet between people must occur at all times. 

The third scenario is distance learning only, used if local, regional or statewide COVID-19 metrics worsen enough to require suspension of in-person learning. 

“Considering the situation, the decision will be a public health decision, and not necessarily an educational one,” Korte said. “If it were up to just educators, we all want our kids back in school. But we just want to keep staff and students safe.” 

Minnesota school districts planned for all three scenarios. “It is entirely possible a district could use all three plans in one year, depending on the situation in that school or community,” Korte said. 

“We have been encouraging school administrations to have a dialogue with parents and families on what services would look like in each of those three scenarios. If this is not happening, we are asking parents to be in communication with teachers and administrators to be sure their voices are heard,” he said. 

Korte recommended that families have their own plans for what could happen in each situation. “Is additional assistance needed in the home? You need to be ready to go when school starts, and that needs to be part of the conversation.” 

Even if MDE were to allow schools to provide in-person instruction, Korte said it is still a requirement to provide distance learning to families who need it because of a vulnerable child or adult at home. “There will be some percentage of families who don’t feel comfortable coming back into the school system yet.” 

A recent state survey received 130,000 responses. Families were asked how they felt about distance learning utilized since the pandemic began. Distance learning was rated good by 35.2 percent; bad by 42.percent, very good by 9.5 percent, very bad by 10 .3 percent and the same as in person by 3.8 percent. 

Access to the Internet, access to technology and good communication from teachers and schools were cited as positive. Top challenges to distance learning were students not feeling empowered, and students experiencing mental health challenges due to COVID-19. 

When asked in the survey if they would feel comfortable sending their students back to school in the fall, 64.3 percent of parents replied yes; 11.4 percent said no and 24.3 percent were unsure. 

“We won’t know the actual outcomes of distance learning for at least a year,” Korte said. 

Many results of distance learning have also been anecdotal. A series of 30 feedback sessions that were professionally facilitated were held. 

“Generally, for some students distance learning worked really well,” Korte said, “mainly secondary and middle school students. Some who were at home plugged away. On the other hand, some students who have very high needs being served by the district, such as respite care, that just were not able to be provided, struggled.” The situation can vary from teacher to teacher, from school to school and on the students’ needs. 

Regarding staff concerns, Korte said he is not sure MDE has a source of good qualitative service data. “Anecdotally, we have heard concerns from teachers and staff on the wellbeing of distance learning, and students getting what they need. And then there are some staff who are very concerned about going back, especially if they have underlying health conditions.” 

“Our approach is to try and stay out of the political discussion around opening or not opening schools,” Korte said. “We are sticking to what the science says. We are educational professionals, not health professionals. We need to rely on those folks who know that area and can give us recommendations.” 

Resources for school

The Minnesota Disability Law Center is hearing many questions from families about COVID-19 waivers, as well as changes to policies and procedures at schools. These issues are raising many red flags. 

The center has prepared a website with a FAQ and downloadable fact sheet on many of the issues.

Other resources for families include:

  • Work with your care provider to stay healthy. Protect yourself. Vaccines are your best protection against being sick.
  • Wash your hands! Hands that look can still have icky germs!

You are not alone. Minnesota Autism Resource Portal.