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Minnesota schools and families are struggling with a growing list of questions, and few answers, as they try to plan for a school year that could be a mix of in-person classes and distance learning.

Eight weeks remain until the start of a new academic year, but it’s still unclear how it will begin. By the last week of July, state officials will tell schools whether they can reopen, if they should stick with distance learning, or if they should attempt something even more complicated: a “hybrid” model that combines in-person classes, online instruction, and a long list of rules meant to limit the spread of COVID-19.

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The hybrid model is an effort to serve students’ academic, emotional and social needs by reuniting them with teachers and peers. After months of isolation and lessons delivered on computer screens, school leaders and parents say those needs are real, and urgent. But reopening schools while also enforcing strict capacity limits and social distancing requirements means many students will have to rotate in and out of buildings on schedules that do not line up with those of working parents.

Teachers worry how they’ll handle split classrooms, simultaneously tending to the needs of students in the building and those at home on their laptops. Administrators aren’t sure how they’ll afford the additional bus routes needed to accommodate capacity restrictions and rotating student schedules. Parents, contemplating the realities of two- or three-day school weeks — with assigned days that could vary among children in the same household — wonder how they’ll make it work.

“It’s almost an Amazon logistics issue,” said John Alberts, executive director of educational services for Austin Public Schools. “It gets nightmarish, to a certain degree, for parents.”

Political debate

The debate over whether to open schools — and what that reopening would look like — has become increasingly political.

Last week, some large school systems — including New York City Public Schools — announced that they would bring back students for only a few days each week, or were likely to keep students at home. In response, President Donald Trump threatened to withhold federal funding from school systems unless they fully reopen, tweeting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for schools were “very tough & expensive” and “impractical.” The head of the CDC said later that the guidelines for schools would not be revised, but that the agency would provide help to local officials as they make decisions about reopening. Teachers unions and some health officials, meanwhile, say the rush to reopen without detailed planning poses serious health risks to students, teachers and their communities.

In Minnesota, Republicans in the state Legislature last week said they planned to introduce a bill that would allow local school districts to make their own decisions about reopening. For now, the Department of Education has directed schools to prepare for multiple scenarios, based on the CDC guidelines. The department says the hybrid model could be implemented “if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional, or statewide level,” or within a specific school if there’s an outbreak.

Among the rules schools would have to follow: limiting the number of people in buildings and on buses to 50% of maximum occupancy, and maintaining at least 6 feet between students, teachers and others in the building. Schools would also have to simultaneously serve meals to students at school and provide for pickup or delivery of meals to students assigned to distance learning at home, and set up a child care program for children of critical workers.

There also would be recommendations and requirements about hygiene practices, mask wearing, and other variables.

Deputy education commissioner Heather Mueller said state officials recognize that following all the rules is a “heavy lift” for schools. But she said the department has been hearing for months that students should be back in the classroom — in whatever form it takes to keep students and teachers safe.

Mueller said officials are exploring ways to help cash-strapped school districts that are scrambling to buy more laptops, retrofit school buildings to meet safety guidelines or hire more bus drivers and cafeteria workers, but did not say if that money could come from federal or state government, or private sources.

She said community organizations should help with some of the child care logistics for students on the days they are not scheduled to attend school.

“That’s not solely a school district’s concern, it’s a community concern,” she said.

Shortened weeks

Most districts, however, don’t yet have a handle on how much money they’ll need to spend, how many students will require child care — or even how they’d get all of their students to school on half-empty buses and redesigned routes.

“Once we get students to school, we feel we can develop a plan to provide a really high-quality education,” said Rachel Gens, curriculum and instruction director for the Bloomington school district. “But getting them to school is definitely the trickiest thing we have come up against.”

A few have crafted tentative plans for the big-picture logistics. In the Bloomington district, elementary and middle school students would attend school two days a week, plus a third day every other week. High school students would have just one day of in-person classes and spend four days at home, doing schoolwork online.

Elementary schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district would be open every day, but older students would spend just two days per week in the classroom. To keep class sizes small in the lower grades, teachers who had been specialists in reading or math might be redeployed to work as classroom teachers.

Elsewhere, school leaders are considering schedules that would rotate one group of students in for a week of classes, followed by a week of distance learning at home. Some are considering keeping schools empty on Wednesdays for deep cleaning, while others would pick one day a week for teachers to work one-on-one with students most in need of help. In several districts, younger students might be moved to secondary schools to allow for social distancing while older students stay home.

Unanswered questions

Districts face even more challenges, such as trying to sort out which students live in the same household so they can attempt to put them on similar schedules. The what-ifs are endless: How many students and teachers with health conditions or vulnerable family members won’t want to return? If an outbreak shuts down a school, how long can districts keep paying educational assistants, cafeteria workers and bus drivers? How do you keep students physically distanced during a science lab? Where can schools provide day care for young students on distance-learning days, and how can they keep them separated from one another and also kept on task at their iPads?

Sieara Washington, a parent and an educational assistant in the Osseo school district, said those questions only scratch the surface. She said many hourly school staff members are uncertain if they’ll have a job this year, let alone how they’ll balance work with the complex school schedules of their own children. She worries that state and school leaders are glossing over the fine details that determine whether parents can support their families while also keeping the children on track at school.

“These parents that have other jobs — what are they supposed to do?” she asked. “When it comes to child care, is the child care going to be free?”

Still, many parents, teachers and school leaders are convinced hybrid learning will work out.

Susan Nelson, a high school science and theater teacher in Hibbing, said she’s convinced of that after teaching a small group of students in a hybrid program this summer. She said the joy that radiated from students and teachers after months apart was like nothing she’s experienced in 30 years of teaching.

“I realized I finally felt human again,” she said. “I left feeling better than I had for months because I had contact with students — not robot, computer students. Just having that human contact for them, and us, makes a difference, even if we only see them once a week.”

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790