A strange new year

Published 7:01 am Saturday, July 25, 2020

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Sumner Elementary prepares to welcome back students under the uncertain shadow of COVID-19


There’s no doubt that this year’s school year — in whichever form it takes — will be a challenge.

As the state’s school districts wait for the Minnesota Department of Education to announce which of three paths it will take this year, Sumner Elementary will have already started its year.

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Sumner is the only school in the Austin Public Schools District on the 45/15 schedule — 45 days on, 15 off — and it starts its year on Tuesday.

Since the end of last year, when COVID-19 forced the shift in education to distance learning, both the school and district have planned for the eventuality of students returning to the classroom.

“We kind of wrapped up distance learning in the spring and started right in with the planning of what this year is going to look like,” said Sumner Principal Sheila Berger.

While Berger and the school have an idea of what that year will look like, complete with social distancing and encouraged mask wearing, it doesn’t take away the uncertainty that will accompany classes.

And it starts with what the MDE will ultimately do. Earlier this month, it announced that a final decision would be coming next week and in the meantime districts should plan for one of three possible paths:

• All students return to school buildings following Centers for Disease Control/Minnesota Department of Health guidelines.

• Students return using a hybrid model (in-person/distance learning) following CDC/MDH guidelines.

• No students return, implement social distance learning model.

The wait of knowing what the MDE is going to do left schools to come up with plans of their own and left them facing a change in those plans depending on what the state would do.

Schools like Sumner; however, were going to have to implement their plans earlier.

“There’s pressure,” Berger said. “We want to do well for our students and families. We want to take care of our staff as well. Every decision you had to make, you had to run through: is it good for kids? Is it good for families? Is it good for our staff?”

Many of the processes Sumner staff use to educate students will see changes this year across all fronts.

School supplies are set out for first graders at Sumner Elementary Wednesday. Each student will have access to only there own supplies and will not be allowed to share because of COVID-19. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

The golden number is 50 percent: No room — including bussing — can accommodate more than 50 percent occupancy at any one time. Students will be sitting at individual desks with their own supplies that cannot be shared.

Most learning will take place in the classroom, including physical education and art, which will see the teachers in those areas come to the classrooms.

There will be recess, but that will be limited to how many students will be out at the same time.

“We do know kids are going to interact,” she said. “We try the less than 15 minutes, more than six feet using the Department of Health’s recommendations. But we also want kids to move. We know that’s so important.”

The days will also be different. Students will attend school from 8 a.m. to 1:40 p.m Monday through Thursday. After 1:40 p.m., students will be sent home with distance learning materials they will work on at home.

This will also be the case on Fridays, where students will shift completely to distance learning, giving the full day to teachers for lesson planning.

However, students aren’t required to return to classrooms. The option was left to parents who didn’t feel comfortable sending their students to school to distance learning.

“We assigned a teacher to work with those families who don’t feel that sending their students here is a good idea,” Berger said, adding. “They’ll be doing distance learning a little bit different than last spring.”

Last spring, allowances were made for students to better ease them through the process; however, this time student attendance will count, requiring them to check in with their teachers daily. Work will also need to be completed and turned in on a regular basis.

To help with that, the teacher, Deborah Cook, will have access to the lesson plans of other teachers and will bring those plans to the students.

Currently, 10 percent of students at the school are set up for distance learning, down from a projected 20 percent officials thought.

With all these steps made, Berger hopes for as smooth a transition as possible, complete with keeping students as safe as possible. But there are also concerns with staff safety. To that end, Berger said that the staff is willing to take all the necessary steps.

“Monday morning was our first morning back and the district has maintained to this point that masks were highly encouraged and when we all met in the gym every single person had a mask on,”  Berger said. “I think everyone here is so grateful to be here and able to continue our calendar. We are all passionate about the calendar. We’re going to do whatever we can, what’s in our control to make sure that happens and do it in a way where everybody is safe.”

Even with plans in place, everything still goes back to the MDE, and whichever way they go could mean that Sumner is once again having to adjust its schedule.

Deborah Cook works from her room at Sumner Elementary Wednesday afternoon. Cook will have access to other teachers’ lesson plans to handle the distance learning side of Sumner. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

This current plan is a five week plan based on summer guidelines. However, depending on what the MDE does, APS and Sumner would need to adjust its schedule moving forward. For Sumner, that means it would fall in line with the district starting on Aug. 31.

Even though there is that uncertainty, Sumner still will have the advantage of experience.

“We know this is a five-week plan, we don’t know for sure what’s going to come,” Berger said. “We will have a voice at the table and be sure to share those things that worked really well and all that didn’t work.”

However, Berger has already imparted one important lesson on her staff — nothing is set in stone.

“That’s one of the things we talked about as a staff day one. Don’t write anything in permanent marker,” she said. “This is going to be one of those years for which we can predict.”

On the other side, though, Berger feels the school is as ready as it can be despite the circumstances.

“We have hope and we have to be willing to do whatever it takes and what that is today might look different five days from now. “We have to control what we can control and take each step with the information we have armed with the best policies and procedures we can at that given moment.”