While circumstances could change between now and the start of the school year, Owatonna superintendent Jeff Elstad is hopeful that students can be in the classroom for the opening-day bell. He said the determination of whether students will be in class will be based on local conditions of the outbreak in each community across the state, "If we were to have that option today in Owatonna, we would be in-person with all of our students, today." He quickly cautioned that an outbreak could then force a move to distance learning.

Those actions are different than in the spring when the entire state went to a distance learning model at the same time and stuck with it through the end of the school year. Elstad explained the latest details during a virtual Coffee and Conversation event Friday morning. The governor will make an announcement regarding the school year the week of July 27. Elstad said by August 3 or 4 Owatonna school officials will forward specifics to parents in the district.

"This summer has been like to other summer. This is my 28th year in education...It seems like we put our foot on the gas in March and we really haven't let off." He said July is usually a time for teachers to catch their breath before preparing for the new school year. This year, however, educators are awaiting details on what school will look like in the fall.

Elstad said if students report to class and then there is an outbreak, that could effect the entire district, a single building, or even a single room. He said contact tracing will be a critical factor in determining the proper response. Elstand said districts will work with the Minnesota Department of Health on final decisions. He said a shift from in-person class to distance learning would likely last at least four weeks to allow for two 14-day incubation periods of the virus.

Districts were instructed to assemble plans for three possible scenarios for the fall: in-school, distance learning, or a hybrid of both. Elstad said, "We know we do our best work when we have students in front of us." He acknowledged that social distancing becomes very difficult with all students in the buildings.

He said a hybrid model could look different for elementary students as compared to middle and high school students. It could include students divided into groups and rotating days in class with days spent distance learning

Elstad shared results of a survey conducted by the education department that found 64-percent of respondents wanted to send their children back to school this fall. Of those, 94-percent felt no restrictions were necessary. Twenty-one-percent were unsure of sending kids back to school and were concerned about sanitation and masks. Eleven-percent were not comfortable with in-person class. The statewide survey had 130,000 participants.

In Owatonna, Elstad said that surveys of parents gave good marks for student-to-teacher contact but not enough student-to-student contact.

While saying, "It's going to be like no other school year," Elstad added that the goal "is to have as much in-person instruction as we can get." He said there could be several switches from in-person to distance learning during the 2020-2021 school year.


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