As schools look ahead to fall, one Rochester elementary offers a glimpse of the future

A woman stands next to a silver robot.
Longfellow Elementary School principal Amy Adams poses in front of two robots that greet her students every morning outside of the school in Rochester, Minn., Thursday.
Catharine Richert | MPR News

Recess at Longfellow Elementary School in Rochester this week seems pretty normal: Kids are running around in a big green field, climbing on the jungle gym and skipping rope.

But the school adopted a hybrid model of learning for the start of its school year, which began earlier this month — so that means the kids are also wearing masks. And because students are only there in person for two days a week, the playground gaggle is a bit sparse. Most kids are at home doing distance learning.

"The kids have been extremely resilient. They really have been troupers through this new way of coming into school,” said principal Amy Adams.

As school districts across Minnesota are looking ahead to the fall, now with guidance from the state, Longfellow offers a glimpse into what school might look like in September for some students across the state: masks on inside and outside the classroom, big stickers on the floor to remind kids to keep 6 feet apart and staggered dismissal times. These are just a few changes Longfellow has made to protect students and teachers from spreading coronavirus.

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Longfellow is part of Rochester's public school system, but is in session year-round, in school for 45 days and off for 15, with a summer break built in.

So these students went back to school earlier this month — and: So far, so good, said Adams.

“Truly, the students are doing an amazing job,” she said. “It's a new process and a new way for them to go about their school day.”

Meanwhile, teachers have had to change the way they work by keeping their distance from students.

"That's a huge difference and has been one of the challenges. We know that good teaching involves movement and collaboration,” said Adams.

For teachers, there's an added challenge of maneuvering three teaching models at once: in-person learning, hybrid learning and distance learning.

Adams says she's not sure if Longfellow will continue its current model into the fall. The state's guidance suggests schools move to universal distance learning if the number of coronavirus cases in their area gets too high.

Meanwhile, Rochester Public Schools has put together a blueprint for three learning scenarios this fall, but has yet to settle on one. It’s in the process of getting feedback from parents, public health experts and the state on whether it’s safe to reopen schools entirely or adopt some combination of distance and in-person learning, and is expected to announce its decision next week.

And depending on which approach the Rochester school district settles on, Adams worries transportation could become an issue. Buses can't be packed with students like they usually are.

"I know that if we were to continue on this model with the safety precautions in place, it would be a challenge to find enough buses and drivers,” she said.

As other districts look toward the fall, Adams says her best advice is to bring a lot of people to the table — teachers, parents and students — before making big decisions about teaching plans.

And she has this pro tip: Give the kids lanyards with a clip for their masks, so they can keep track of them during lunchtime.

COVID-19 in Minnesota