Rochester school superintendent on innovating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic

Century High School in Rochester
Century High School in Rochester
Rochester Public School District

There’s been a steady stream of COVID-19 cases in many schools across Minnesota. Some districts are seeing so many cases that they've decided to extend the Thanksgiving break to tamp down the spread of the virus. Substitutes are in short supply, and school positions aren't being filled. This is a stressful time for teachers, staff, students and parents.

Some districts in the state, including Rochester Public Schools (RPS), are adding extra days off in the school calendar in an effort to combat stress. In Rochester, they are being called “planning and wellbeing days.”

Kent Pekel is interim superintendent of RPS. He told host Cathy Wurzer how his district is innovating in response to the pandemic.

It’s a “continual, constant challenge,” Pekel said.

Students are returning to in-person learning with huge needs, Pekel explained. Many students have been away from in-person learning for nearly two years, which means some are facing the kinds of academic and developmental setbacks they might have suffered had they missed two grade levels entirely. Teachers are working hard to reinvent curricula in light of these needs.

Staffing shortages are also putting extra strain on teachers and school staff. Pekel said RPS is working hard to keep and add staff, highlighting hiring bonuses and retention bonuses offered by the district.

Although community spread of COVID-19 is currently high in Olmsted County, Pekel maintained that RPS’s goal is “to keep our schools safe and open all year long.” Distance learning doesn’t work as well as in-person learning for many students, he said.

“Heat” in debates regarding masks and critical race theory is also ratcheting up tension in Rochester schools, Pekel said, making it hard to have calm conversations about responding to the pandemic.

Through it all, educators are leaning on each other for support. “I get energized by seeing the work that our students and our staff are doing here,” Pekel said.

Use the audio player above to listen to the full conversation.

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