Back-to-school season is upon us once again in this, the age of COVID. Guidance on reopening schools is mixed, but Northeast-area schools all hold a common commitment to coming back to in-person education this fall, if certain requirements are met.
“We’re doing everything we can to keep students and staff safe while learning in person,” said Kristen Stuenkel, director of community education for Columbia Heights Public Schools. While the district is committed to a return to in-person learning this year, she explained that a requirement for masks is the key to making sure that return is done safely.
In Columbia Heights, a universal mask requirement will be in place for all people ages three and up while inside a school building, except when swimming or eating. Students in preschool can take off their masks while sleeping. Stuenkel said the district heavily encourages vaccination, but they are not required at this time. The Pfizer vaccine was recently approved by the FDA, which could factor into future decisions whether to continue this policy.
The Highlander Center will begin offering vaccinations on Sept. 7 from 2 to 5 p.m., according to Stuenkel.
“It’s very important for robust vaccination. Vaccinations are a game-changer,” said Stuenkel. “We’re close to 75% participation [in vaccination], which is fantastic. Having a highly-vaccinated community makes it so much easier and more comfortable for our staff and students to come back to in-person learning.”
Most of Heights’ return to school plan was already in motion when the delta variant began to spread rapidly through the state. Everything could change at a moment’s notice; however, the school district’s plan is heavily based on community feedback gathered over the course of the summer from students and their families. In recent weeks leading up to back-to-school day, the enthusiasm of some families has noticeably diminished. While there is currently no plan for a distance-learning program in Heights schools, Stuenkel said the district is open to revising that stance pending community interest.
“Schools respond to what the community wants,” she said. “When the community shifts, we are responsive.”
This year, Heights and other school districts have the benefit of hindsight. “We’ve learned a lot since the early days of the pandemic,” Stuenkel said. School buildings have had a massive upgrade to their ventilation systems over the summer, and other soft policy changes have been adjusted while students have been away. Seats are now farther apart to encourage social distancing, and cleaning schedules have been bolstered.
Columbia Heights Schools have also taken the opportunity to implement more robust social support programs. The new “Heighten Up!” initiative will offer academic, social, and emotional support to students who are struggling during these troubled times.
The St. Anthony/New Brighton School District is in a similar situation to Columbia Heights. The decision to mask up was solidified by the school district on the evening of Aug. 24, when the school board met in a hybrid in-person/remote conference. A brief listening session was held beforehand to hear commentary from the community before the meeting began.
Community voices were somewhat divided, though few spoke up in the first place. One community member was unenthusiastic about the mask requirement, citing lack of data to indicate children are vulnerable to the disease or able to pass it to adults, while a mother and teacher from Wilshire Park stated that she believed masks to be a tool the school district should use to avoid shutting down amid yet another wave of the pandemic.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, as of Aug. 26, children accounted for roughly 14.8% of cumulative cases of COVID-19 in America, and were 22.4% of reported weekly cases. Severe cases amongst children are uncommon, but due to the novelty of the disease, there is no data on the long-term effects COVID can have on them.
“[The delta variant] has created a different discussion, and a different approach,” said SANB Superintendent Dr. Renee Corneille. The district’s schools all plan to return to in-person learning this year, but dealing with a more infectious evolution of the virus means that mitigation strategies are more important than ever. Fortunately, the community has a high vaccination rate. That, paired with masks, should help immensely.
SANB Schools will require masks for anyone ages two and older while inside school buildings. Only visitors from essential services will be allowed inside school buildings for the foreseeable future. Social distancing will be encouraged, but not as heavily enforced as it was last year; students will not be broken up into pods, and the general flow of daily life in school will be largely uninterrupted. Ventilation upgrades have been installed in school buildings as well. Teachers will also be encouraged to hold outdoor lessons as often as possible while the weather permits.
Corneille stressed the point that the requirement to wear masks will make it so that, with proper contact tracing, the school will not have to shut down and quarantine everyone whenever there is an infection. Currently, the school has no plans to offer distance learning programs, and they do not currently require vaccination.
“You only need to look at the chaos happening in some Southern state school districts having to completely shut down just weeks after opening because they didn’t require masks,” said School Board Director Barry Kinsey. “I believe what we are doing is the right thing.”
Minneapolis Public Schools are also requiring face masks on all people ages two and up while inside school buildings. Social distancing is encouraged but not required, and like other school districts, they are not requiring vaccination against COVID-19. There is, however, an option for distance learning, for families that are so inclined.
“Families do have the option to attend MPS Online School, but enrolled students forfeit enrollment in their current schools, so this is not a short-term option nor a formal distance learning recommendation from MPS,” said Julie Schultz Brown, Minneapolis Public Schools executive director of marketing and communications. “Systems are being put in place should school districts be required by the state to offer a distance learning option in the future based on infection rates.”
Due to a shortage of bus drivers, MPS recommends that any families that are able to drive their children to school do so. Sporadic bus services are expected not just in Minneapolis, but across the country as the American workforce faces a labor shortage. Schultz Brown said students could face route delays that would make them late to classes. Families are also advised that because there will be fewer drivers, bus routes will be amended to cover wider areas, resulting in more crowded rides and making social distancing more difficult.
A new app can help families track their child’s bus from their tablet, smartphone, or computer. The app, “Here Comes the Bus,” can help students keep track of how long they will have to wait if their bus is running late. More information can be found online at https://transportation.mpls.k12.mn.us/here_comes_the_bus.
For families that are able to bring their children to school themselves, a travel reimbursement program is available at https://transportation.mpls.k12.mn.us/bus_reimbursement.
Meanwhile, MPS is working as hard as they can to find adequate staffing for their routes. They need 50 more drivers to meet demand. Hourly wages have been increased, and the district is offering sign-on and referral bonuses as well. Schultz Brown said the driver shortage has been getting steadily worse for the past five years, but the pandemic aggravated the problem to a critical point.
By federal mandate, masks are required on all public transportation. This includes school buses in Minneapolis, and both of the aforementioned school districts as well.
Park programs are back, in a manner of speaking. At this time last year, Minneapolis park buildings were closed altogether, but this fall, 47 recreation centers will be open for registered programming starting Sept. 7. Interested people can sign up for park programs ahead of time for admittance to park buildings, though masks are always required. Gyms will be open to all, but people have to sign in at the door to get in. This system will allow for easy contact tracing in case of an infection.
Additionally, park buildings can be rented out for private events. The application process requires a COVID-preparedness plan for approval.
Community centers will be open Monday through Friday 3-9 p.m., and Saturdays 12-6 p.m. The Northeast Park Community Center will be open on Sundays 12-6 p.m.
Minnesota public schools require vaccination (or legal exemption) against chickenpox, rubella, measles, mumps, polio, hepatitis B, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis in order to enroll for kindergarten. The Minnesota School Immunization Law was enacted in 1967 to protect students against the measles, and has been amended repeatedly over the years to include other diseases.
Below: Emily Nguyen and her family examined her class schedule for the upcoming school year at Northeast Middle School at a Sept. 1 open house. (Photo by Cynthia Sowden)