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MPS students to head back to class on Aug. 27

Classes will resume in-person, masks will be required

Andrea Johnson/MDN From left to right, Minot school board president Jim Rostad, Minot Public Schools Supt. Mark Vollmer, board vice president Laura Mihalick and board member Bonny Berryman discuss a plan for reopening Minot schools later this month. The board voted unanimously for classes to resume in-person on Aug. 27 so long as the state is at “green” and there are not more cases of the new coronavirus.

Minot Public Schools students will head back to classrooms in a face-to-face setting on Aug. 27, but it will be in an environment that has been vastly changed by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The Minot school board gave unanimous approval at its meeting on Thursday night to a plan that will require masks or face shields for students ranging from kindergarten to the 12th grade as well as for their teachers and school staff. Social distancing will be required when possible, so kids might be required to use different stairwells on their way to a class and on their way out to avoid contact with schoolmates in the hallways. Band and choir might be held, but the young musicians might be wearing special masks with clear shields so their lips can be seen as they sing. Supt. Mark Vollmer said there might be regular “mask breaks” in a classroom setting but kids would take turns removing their masks and would be required to put them back on if they are wandering around a classroom. Increased hygiene measures will also be taken.

This will be the procedure when the area is at “green,” with a manageable number of cases. The plan calls for school districts to move to a hybrid plan combining distance learning and in-person classes and reduced class sizes if the number of coronavirus cases in the area increase and the alert level moves to yellow. At red, with an even higher number of coronavirus cases, the district would close school buildings again, as it did in March, and return to all distance learning.

Parents who do not feel comfortable sending their kids back to a face-to-face classroom can opt for nine weeks of distance learning only. Parents are asked to notify the district by Tuesday if they plan to exercise that option. Vollmer said the distance learning requirements will be far more rigorous than they were last spring when school buildings closed in March and education was abruptly all online. The goal would be for kids who are learning entirely online to learn at the same pace as kids in a traditional classroom setting.

Vollmer told the board that the district needs time to plan, which is why they are asking for the early notification. Parents of children who have special needs or an individual education plan and are considering distance learning are asked to contact their home schools to discuss how best to meet learning goals at home.

Some teachers will be reassigned to teach only students who are in distance learning. Other teachers will be teaching students face-to-face as the year starts out. Teachers will head back to work on Aug. 18 to do that planning.

The plan was drafted by a committee of educators and others that met and also consulted with the First District Health Unit and with different groups from the community. Schools in the state are all creating their own plans or reopening. Each must create a plan for instruction that must follow state guidelines for the North Dakota K-12 Smart Restart, be approved by the local school board, and published on the district’s website and filed with the State Department of Public Instruction. Minot’s plan was made public on its Facebook page and website on Aug. 3 and parents also had an opportunity to submit questions online that Vollmer fielded during a series of virtual meetings held online on Wednesday.

School board president Jim Rostad said he alone had received about 90 emails from concerned parents as of 3 p.m. Thursday. Answers to many of the questions submitted by parents for the virtual meetings will be grouped together and published in the coming days on the school district website.

Board member Miranda Schuler, who noted that she is the only parent of school-age children sitting on the board, proposed pushing the start of the school year back to Sept. 9 to give families more time to make plans.

“I just feel like we’re being rushed,” said Schuler. Her proposal failed to pass by a vote of 4-1, with board members Rostad, Laura Mihalick, Mike Gessner, and Bonny Berryman all voting no.

Supt. Vollmer said he thought pushing back the start of school would also require pushing the last day of school back next year. Other board members said they believe it’s important to get kids back in classes and to start the school year in a face-to-face classroom setting. Board member Gessner, a retired teacher, said that will also give teachers and students a little bit of time to get to know one another. That will be important if an increase in coronavirus cases requires them to go back to a distance learning setting. Vollmer had told the board that teachers will be focusing heavily on “social-emotional learning” when classes begin again. By the time kids are back in classes, they will have been out of a traditional classroom setting for almost six months. Time will also be spent on teaching them all of the new rules and procedures that will be required this school year.

Vollmer said the plan that was presented was a macro plan and things will be adjusted for individual schools and situations as the year progresses.

Board member Bonny Berryman, also a retired teacher, asked whether the district will look at the ventilation needs in some district buildings. She said she had worked as a substitute teacher in the basement at Central Campus and “froze” during that time. Central Campus has poor ventilation, she said.

Vollmer said he would have to discuss ventilation with a building manager.

Educators and all of the board members said that the health and safety of students, teachers and staff are their top priority and people must remain vigilant against the coronavirus, for which there is currently no cure or vaccine. Students and teachers must stay home if they get sick or have symptoms of the coronavirus. Health officials will order people to go into quarantine if they have been in close contact with someone who has a positive test result. Isolating people who have been exposed, mask-wearing, social distancing, lots of cleaning, and educating people about how the virus spreads are among the few tools to keep many more people from getting sick. Hopefully someday it will all be a bad memory, Rostad said.

Teachers have also apparently been asking whether they will have to use their sick leave if they are required to go into quarantine after being exposed to the coronavirus. That is an issue that will be on the agenda at a school board meeting that is scheduled for Aug. 13.

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