Sneeze guards, face masks and no cafeteria lunches: Minn. schools plan ahead for summer and fall

With the start of summer programming only weeks away, Matt Grose, superintendent of both the Deer River and Nashwauk-Keewatin school districts, would really like to start making plans.  

He needs to hire staff, register students and plan for community education and remedial learning over the summer. He also needs to start planning for school to resume in the fall. But he’s waiting to get more guidance from state officials. 

“We’re all sort of having to be patient and realize everyone’s doing the best they can to predict,” Grose said.

He’s resorted to drawing up plans for three different future scenarios. He has a plan to continue distance learning in the summer and fall. He has another plan for how school might be different if in-person learning is allowed. And he has a plan for the possibility of doing some combination of both in-person and distance learning. 

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“We want to know right now what this fall’s going to look like and we want next fall’s guidance right now,” Grose said, while acknowledging that the unpredictability of the virus makes it tough for state health and education officials to provide clarity.

While waiting for guidance from the state, many districts have begun to move forward with their own plans. 

Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, is planning to continue distance learning this summer for those elementary and middle school students who need remedial lessons. 

“We can’t wait to get guidance. This is too important to us,” said Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law. “For this summer, we know we’re going to need to offer programming for students that have fallen behind.” 

For high school students, Law is holding out hope that Gov. Tim Walz will allow the district to run in-person classes over the summer.

“We need to make sure those kids graduate. They’re the closest to graduation but they’re behind,” Law said. “We want to pull those students in and build personal connections if we can.” 

Other districts have also begun planning for in-person programming over the summer.

In Rochester, Minn., community education leaders have begun offering summer child care registration to families in phases. They’re planning to step up health measures: organizing kids into smaller groups, implementing temperature checks for staff and participants as they enter the building, and providing extra hand-washing and cleaning routines as well as masks for all staff. 

Still, they admit that all their programs may have to be modified.  

“We realize that some of these plans are still likely to change, as we are awaiting summer guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education,” Rochester community education administration wrote in an email. 

‘Not as much risk, compared to adults’

There are still many unknowns on how COVID-19 affects children.

Abigail Carlson, an infectious diseases specialist and epidemiologist from Washington University in St. Louis, said researchers are learning more about how the virus affects children. 

It’s become clear, however, that kids can get the virus, and while they often have less severe illnesses from infection, they can spread the virus without getting symptoms. It’s a phenomenon that has dire implications for schools, she said.   

“Schools are a place where a lot of otherwise separate and distant household networks suddenly come together,” Carlson said. “It’s a perfect recipe for an infectious diseases disaster.” 

Plans to reopen

While closing schools seems to be helpful in slowing the spread of the virus, the implications of long-term and widespread school closures have drastic consequences for a generation of learners, as well as effects on the economy. Some groups have begun releasing guidelines on what it might look like to reopen schools for in-person learning, including the American Federation of Teachers and the conservative think tank, American Enterprise Institute.

The blueprints for reopening schools include suggestions such waiting until the number of new COVID-19 cases have declined in an area for 14 days in a row. Other recommendations include having students and staff wear masks, reducing contact between students, and instituting new cleaning and sanitizing routines. 

A marquee at a school reads "Be safe out there, rhinos. We miss you."
A pedestrian walks past a sign with encouraging words outside Justice Page Middle School on April 16, 2020 in Minneapolis.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

These sorts of details are things many school leaders in Minnesota have begun thinking about and planning for. 

“We’ve had a whole meeting and discussion just about hand dryers and paper towels versus hand dryers, versus cloth rollers in the bathrooms,” said North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Superintendent Christine Osorio. “We want to have a whole new way of thinking about business.”

Osorio’s district has also begun installing things like plexiglass sneeze guards in public reception areas. And they’ve begun experimenting with what it might look like to put students in smaller groups for classes, spacing them out in cafeterias — or moving lunch into classrooms — and changing hand-washing routines. 

“Our biggest hope is that we can get together in the summer and work with our students face-to-face,” Osorio said. “We know that distance learning is just not the best mode of instruction for so  many of our learners — especially those that might be slipping behind.” 

‘It’s scary’

Many school leaders have also started planning for another scenario: one in which frightened parents refuse to send their kids back to school, even if in-person classes do resume. 

Juanita Wilkes is a single mom from East Grand Forks, Minn., with four kids under 14. She’s concerned about how widespread the virus will be when and if schools reopen. 

“Now the numbers [of infected people] are higher. As a parent, that’s concerning to me,” Wilkes said. “Little Johnnie can bring it home to Mom or Grandma. ... It's scary to have to send our kids back to school knowing that it’s out there.” 

Grose, the superintendent in Deer River, has heard from families who are worried about the safety of sending their kids back to school. 

“Even if we do open regularly ... there might be parents that might prefer that their child not come to school, even if they’re able to,” Grose said. “How do we adjust our attendance policies and our ability to deliver curriculum?”

Grose thinks it’s not just parents who might return to school in fewer numbers. He’s also spent a lot of time thinking about what a full-blown outbreak might do to his staff. 

“If the virus spreads ... there’s the potential that many of our staff could be ill. How do we do these things on this continuum if 30 percent of our staff aren’t in the building?” Grose said. “Can we keep things going?”