Kids are coping better than adults?
COVID-19 has affected everyone, especially schools. While Minneapolis Public Schools opted to begin the school year with distance learning, others have adopted a hybrid model. They used Gov. Tim Walz’s Safe Learning Model as their guide. Three local schools shared their experiences about the partial re-opening of their facilities.
Yinghua Academy, 1616 Buchanan Ave NE, decided to implement a full hybrid program so students could attend in-person several days per week in split groups, while also keeping the full distance learning option available. The process to re-open was not easy, according to the administrative staff who helped plan, because of the need to make modifications so the school was safe.
Using Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding, which contains two major funding sources for schools, Yinghua made accommodations by adding plexiglass to office spaces and kindergarten classrooms, placing social distance markers in the hallways, providing masks and face shields for teachers, providing additional cleaning equipment, and modifications to their health office. They also used funding to hire new staff who help oversee children during the school day.
Although these accommodations seem like they could change the perspective and attitude of students, Executive Director Sue Berg said students are attending with a positive attitude.
“I think the most outstanding revelation is that the kids are the most amazing’” said Berg. “No one has fussed about a mask, about social distancing, the desks apart, or eating in the classroom. With these changes that had to take place, the teachers have been extremely flexible and committed to learning. We took one step at a time because it is so new and unknown, that we have to modify as we go.”
In the Columbia Heights Public School district, the decision was made for students to return to a phase two, modified hybrid model.
“Phase two is a modified hybrid where the majority of students are learning from home,” said Tara Thukral, director of teaching and learning for Columbia Heights Public Schools. “We have the ability to bring in small groups of students based upon priority needs. We are really looking at students who receive special education services, our multilingual learners, students who are about to graduate who we want to make sure are on track, and some of our youngest learners.”
Although Valley View Elementary, 800 49th Ave NE, is using a modified hybrid phase, Principal Jason Kuhlman still attends work five days a week and provides opportunities for teachers and staff to be in the building.
“I have a hard time running my building being at home,” said Kuhlman. “You don’t feel connected. We have opened our building up to staff so if they want to teach from school, it can bring them consistency and normalcy in a time of abnormality.”
The school used their CARES funding to modify the school, make logistical changes, buy masks, cleaning supplies, face shields for teachers, technology for families to distance learn, hot spots for families who needed internet access, and several temperature-taking, face recognition scanners. The face recognition machine will also tell a teacher whether or not they can enter the school based on their temperature. It is also programmed to scan eyes of the staff and cross-compare to a stock photo programmed into the system which also verifies whether or not they are wearing a mask.
When proposed with the idea of a full hybrid return, Kuhlman is cautious, but wants what is best for parents, teachers and students. The school would need to hire additional staff, because teachers cannot Zoom teach live and teach students on-site live simultaneously.
“We eventually want to bring in our Pre-K and kindergarten students, but again, it is about finding coverage because there are parents who have asked to do distance learning for the entire year,” Kuhlman said. “There are multiple layers. I always equate it to trying to put a puzzle together, but some pieces are upside down and some are not even on the table yet, so it makes it rather difficult to get the puzzle completed.”
With the continued spread of COVID-19, schools are also taking approaches to screen students as soon as possible, and follow MDH guidelines to keep students, staff and families safe. Temperatures are taken daily before entrance to the school, and a quick verbal health assessment is completed. In addition to these practices, all schools are required to have an isolation room to hold sick students until parents pick them up. Ginger Hao, school nurse at Yinghua Academy, and the designated COVID coordinator for her school, says current protocols are in place to prevent sick students from coming to school.
“We have a list of symptoms that we review and if children have those symptoms that could possibly be COVID-19, even if it is a common cold, they have to either stay at home and do a ten day isolation, see a doctor to get an alternate diagnosis, or get a COVID-19 test before they can come back to school,” Hao says. “It’s a burden on parents, and it’s a lot of work for everybody, but we have to have this in place in order to keep very sick children from coming to school.”
Some who returned to teach in person were ready to come back. “I felt like it was my responsibility to come back,” said Pamella Stommes, eighth grade math teacher at Yinghua Academy. “I was ready to come back. Like the magical feel of doctors and nurses and their jobs, it is my job to be here to welcome the students back to school.”
Stommes said the protocols and new safety precautions do not seem to bother her students and they seem happy to be back even if it means following new rules.
“I feel this is a new norm and a new way that we have to interact with people by wearing masks and keeping social distance,” Stommes said. “Kids are fine doing that because they know this is for their safety and for our health so we can continue to come back to the school environment. I feel in my classroom, they [students] are pretty comfortable doing this. They don’t seem bothered, or think it is strange. They just know this is something all of us are doing for the good of everyone else.”
Minneapolis Park and Recreation also opened the doors to their Pre-K program at the Northeast Recreation Center, 1530 Johnson Street NE. Jan Peterson came back to teach after the seven-month hiatus she was forced to take due to COVID-19.
“I don’t have any apprehensions and I feel like if I am going to do this, I am going to be okay,” said Peterson. “We have a deep clean that will come in after class or in the morning and I clean up as we go. The masks and the cleanliness make me feel safe. I think it is important that we are all together again.”
From the perspective of one parent, attending in-person is not only day by day, but subject to change at any point for the safety of everyone. “It is hard when you want what is best for your kids, everyone’s kids and their families, but you can’t have it both ways,” said Carl Romstad, parent of a Yinghua student. “We don’t want them [students] to hurt anyone else. We don’t want someone to give COVID to them and we don’t want to give COVID to someone else. Yinghua found a way to make it work. You struggle with your emotions because you want them to get their education, but at the same time, you do not want any casualties of that. You can’t look at their education as having any acceptable collateral damage.”
Second grade Yinghua student Freyja Romstad is not concerned with the new safety protocols and likes the social aspects of the return. “I’m happy to be back at school because I like being around my friends,” said Freyja. “It does not bother me to wear masks.”
With COVID-19 cases increasing and the potential for school to continue instruction and curriculums like this for some time, administrators, teachers, parents, and students who are experiencing in-person instruction, all seem to be on-board with continuing learning safe practices for the greater good.
“I think kids are very resilient,” said Kuhlman. “I think they are more resilient than we give them credit for. Is it a challenge? Absolutely. I think it is teaching rituals and routines. This is the new normal. This is what we are going to get used to, and this is what we are going to do. If we expect that of them [students], we are going to teach it to them. We are not going to punish them, we are going to teach it [COVID safety], practice it and continue to practice it until it becomes a habit.”
Schools will continuously evaluate the best learning methods for students, teachers and families as COVID-19 case numbers are evaluated weekly per city. More information on CARES funding, and the Safe Learning Model for school programs can be found at: https://education.mn.gov/MDE/dse/health/covid19/slmd/.
Below: A classroom at Yinghua with plexiglass, distancing and other modifications. Even though recess is outside, Yinghua students wear masks. (Photos by Marla Khan-Schwartz)