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St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard said Thursday night that he will recommend that the district begin the school year with an exclusive focus on distance learning.

“We still have an unknown, and that unknown for us is, how safe are our schools?” Gothard said at a news conference Thursday night. “There will be a successful reopening in our future — we just don’t know when.”

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Gothard’s recommendation came after Gov. Tim Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education released guidelines for the coming school year earlier Thursday.

Gothard said that it was his “leading recommendation for us to begin with 100% distance learning” when school starts Sept. 8.

Though the district “has been planning for multiple scenarios the whole time,” in-person learning with social distancing would have been complicated by the district’s many sizes and shapes of buildings, each with different enrollments, Gothard said.

Rather than voting on the distance learning decision, the St. Paul school board will vote next week on a resolution to provide Gothard with the powers to decide how the district will proceed through the pandemic.

The district may return to a hybrid or in-person model later in the school year, based on guidance from state health officials and COVID-19 case statistics in Ramsey County.

Officials will continue to monitor data to determine the right time for those transitions, Gothard said.

An all-year “SPPS Virtual Learning” option will also be offered to families that want it.

District staff learned a lot from the first round of distance learning this spring and will refine that information for the upcoming year, he said.

“It has to be better,” he said. “We’re excited about the development and the growth we’ve been able to make.”

The district’s students will continue to use iPads, which all students in St. Paul have received for seven years, for lessons.

He said there will be in-person and online supports in place for anyone struggling with distance learning.

Mayor Melvin Carter said Thursday that he fully supports the district starting the year with distance learning.

Gothard will speak at a virtual town meeting Aug. 6, about the district’s plans.