WORTHINGTON — The District 518 school board voted Thursday morning to move the start of the 2020-2021 school year to Sept. 8, nine days later than originally planned.

The unanimous decision was made in an effort to give district staff more time to work out the details of this year's learning plan. New teachers will still report August 17, all other teachers August 24 and paraprofessionals August 31.

The board also had a lengthy discussion about some of the finer points of how learning will work in the coming school year. While the year will begin using a hybrid model of instruction, several elements are still being developed.

Superintendent John Landgaard explained that the finalized plan will be released to the public on August 14. So far, it has been decided that Prairie Elementary students will be assigned to attend school either Monday and Thursday or Tuesday and Friday, and middle school and high school students will be assigned one of those days. Wednesdays will be reserved for "intervention days," where students can get extra help and meet with their teachers, and staff can do additional cleaning in the school buildings.

Limiting factors

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A major limiting factor is transportation, Landgaard noted. The state says that buses can only have 50% capacity, which means the district can only transport about 1,100 students (out of 3,200 in the district) in a single bus route.

Board member Adam Blume asked if the district could ask parents to drive their kids to schools — if the biggest issue is transportation — and thus allow more students to be in the classroom. He pointed out that the Adrian school district has chosen to have 100% of elementary students in school and 50% capacity in older grades.

Legally, though, the district can't ask parents to drive their kids, board chair Brad Shaffer said. The only control the board has over transportation is setting the distance around the school that qualifies student for transport.

As of now, any student who lives within a mile of the school doesn't qualify for a bus route, but widening that radius wouldn't necessarily solve the problem, Landgaard added. Because Prairie Elementary is at the west end of town, if the transportation radius was extended to two miles, almost all the students would still qualify. At the high school, a two-mile radius would exclude almost all the students.

Social distancing in the classroom is also a limitation, Landgaard said. Adrian is a much smaller district, so it's easier to spread the kids out more. District 518 doesn't have that same luxury.

Additionally, food service is a concern. The district is required to provide food service to all students, even on days when they're distance learning. It has not yet been decided exactly how this will work.

Staff accommodations

By order of the state, District 518 must provide daycare services for school-age children of Tier 1 employees, which includes educators. It will be free during school hours, but the district may charge for before- and after-school care. Daycare will be centralized at the former West Elementary building.

"A substantial amount" of teachers have applied to be able to work from home, citing personal conditions that make them high-risk for contracting COVID-19, Landgaard said. Requests are being considered on a case-by-case basis, and teachers are asked to provide a doctor's note that lists specific accommodations needed. In order to qualify to work from home, teachers must present multiple risk factors.

"I'm not sure it's reasonable to have a teacher at home when we're asking students to come to school," Shaffer said, asking what's legally required in these cases.

Landgaard explained that the district is legally obligated to provide "reasonable accommodations," which will likely look like a teacher using Zoom to teach from home, while another adult is physically in the classroom with the students.

Moving between learning models

Although the year will begin with a hybrid model, as the coronavirus pandemic develops, the district may reevaluate during the course of the school year.

If an outbreak occurs and the district needs to move to distance learning across the board, that change is likely to happen quickly. It's a lot more complicated, though, to move toward more in-person learning, Landgaard explained. Moving in a less restrictive direction requires consultation with the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health.

Several board members expressed frustration that the board does not have direct access to local coronavirus statistics and must work through the health department.

"I'm a little perturbed that they're not releasing that information for us to make decisions," said board member Steve Schnieder.

Open enrollment

With different districts making varying decisions about how to open schools, there is the potential for parents to move their children into a different district that's following their preferred model.

"I've sent an email to the state requesting that they close open enrollment across the state," Landgaard told the board.

Each school district has already made its budget, and significant transfer between districts could disrupt allocation of funds, he said.

"The case rate is a moving target," added board member Lori Dudley.

The state's recommendations are fluid based on the number of positive COVID-19 cases compared with county population. If there's an outbreak and the state orders a move to a more restrictive model, then districts starting the year with more kids in classrooms will have to alter their plans anyway.

Moving forward

The Fall Planning Committee is carefully considering all the concerns noted, Landgaard assured the board.

"We can't allow perfection to stand in the way of good," he said.

"Are we basically telling the public that until the state changes the rules and regulations, this is the plan?" board member Mike Harberts asked.

Essentially, yes, Landgaard clarified — transportation and social distancing are such limiting factors that hybrid learning makes the most sense right now.

Conceding that the district has to work with current recommendations, Shaffer added that "We need to let students know, 'You're expected to be in class.'" The board should not have another meeting like the one in May to discuss adjusting the grading scale, he said.

The district has to satisfy public health needs and the needs of students at the same time, board member Linden Olson noted.

"I think we've got a plan that balances that pretty well," he said.

Olson also added that the community plays a role in whether the district is able to get more students in classrooms.

"It's important for members of the community to take responsibility to prevent the spread (of COVID-19) as much as possible," he said. The more people social distance and wear masks, the more likely it is that schools can open for more students.