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APS students head back to the classroom

Using guidance handed down by the state, Austin Public Schools is returning students, in a couple different ways, to the classrooms this year.

During Monday’s school board meeting, Superintendent David Krenz reported to the board that grades K-6 will return to face-to-face learning, while Ellis Middle School and Austin High School students will return to a hybrid-style of learning that will see students in school four days a week.

“I challenged the administration to put together a plan with two key elements,” Krenz told the board. “No. 1, we must open in the safest possible manner for all of our students and staff. Secondly, we must open the best education environment possible. Make sure every student is receiving the education that they deserve.”

The decision to move back to some form of in-person learning across the district was made following a formula by the Minnesota Department of Education, in coordination with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. The formula factors in the COVID-19 case rate by county over 14 days per 10,000 county residents. That number, when worked out, is applied to learning model parameters, which will guide the schools.

“Right now, Mower County is relatively low in the 14-15 (case) range,” Krenz said. 

However, that could change quickly throughout the school, depending on whether or not a county sees a spike in cases. At the same time, APS worked through calculations in order to best decide which route it would go.

“We did a lot of calculations,” Krenz said. “Why? We don’t want to change every other week what delivery services will be. We want to be consistent through the first nine weeks.”

“We believe that we can remain within our recommended levels, at least through the first quarter, perhaps even better,” he added.

Both levels will have to maintain 50 percent capacity in any one room at all times as well as follow all other safety precautions, including social distancing measures and the wearing of masks; however, those with medical conditions and students under 5-years-old will be exempt. 

That extends to busing, where a tiered system will most likely be employed that will allow for cleaning the buses in between drop-offs.

At the K-6 levels, students will be isolated as much as possible, with specializing teachers for music and physical education going into classrooms. The aim is to keep contact at a minimum.

At the middle school and high school level, classes will most likely be split up during the first semester in order to better accommodate the 50 percent capacity.

Currently, the plan for both buildings is for half the students to be in class Monday-Tuesday and the other half Thursday-Friday. 

“Wednesdays are for cleaning, planning and for that distance learning transition,” Krenz said.

However, the district is currently working to finalize plans by the time the 2020 school year starts on Aug. 31.

“Final schedules probably won’t be coming out until the days before the opening of the schools,” Krenz warned. “There are so many things that need to take place in a short period of time compared to months.”

Still, the return to classrooms follows a hope within the district as reflected in surveys filled out by families and staff. In all cases, the reporting parties show an urge to see students back to school. At the same time, any family who wishes their student to take part in distance learning will be offered that opportunity. 

In both cases — returning or distance learning — the district is urging families commit one way or the other.

“We would like to encourage them to commit for a nine-week period, but we understand things change,” Krenz said. “We’ll work with parents and families individually to do what’s best and what’s right with their students.”

Kids Korner will also continue in some fashion this coming year, according to Director of Community Education Jennifer Lawhead, based on the information coming down from the state.