DASSEL-COKATO, MN Dassel-Cokato Schools Superintendent Jeff Powers, during Tuesday evening’s school board meeting, detailed district plans for educating and feeding students during the COVID-19 crisis.
Current state of affairs
Powers told board members the district’s administrative team met Sunday, March 14 to come up with a short-term plan, in light of the state mandate to close all schools no later than Wednesday, March 18.
“This is a world we’ve never lived in,” Powers said. “It’s very odd.”
The admin team decided on a two-hour late start Monday, March 15, to give district staff time to come to work, touch base, and begin to make plans for the closure. Powers said staff then spent much of the remainder of the day explaining what was happening to students, and helping them get their belongings gathered.
Powers said he stood in the parking lot as students left school, and noticed a more somber tone than is typical at the beginning of a routine break.
“There’s a lot of sadness and fear surrounding this,” he said.
Distance learning deadline
The Minnesota Department of Education has tasked all districts to be ready to resume instruction, whether in-person or in a distance learning model, Monday, March 30.
Powers said his best guess was that districts would not be looking at a “brief closure.”
Powers said that staff has spent time this week reaching out to identify students who don’t have computer hardware on which they can complete schoolwork. Identified families will receive hardware sometime this week.
Staff is also working to ensure families have adequate internet access. Powers noted Spectrum is providing free internet access for those who need it within Spectrum’s coverage area. He also said the district will provide Verizon hot spots for families who remain in need of internet access.
“There aren’t many families without internet,” Powers said, “but there are some.”
Delivering school and meals
Powers said district staffers are working together to plan how to deliver schoolwork and meals to all district students, beginning Monday, March 30.
On that date, school buses will begin delivering lessons and meals. District staff members will ride the buses to keep deliveries organized and moving at the bus stops.
Powers said all students will be reached: students not currently on a bus route will be added to it. He indicated people will be expected to meet the bus drivers will not be bringing items to the door.
Powers said families would be able to order school breakfasts and lunches on a weekly basis.
He pointed out that specifics about school work and meal deliveries will come from each school. Elementary students may have actual packets of work that will be delivered, as opposed to strictly online work.
Instead of returning papers to school, students may be asked to submit photos of it online.
Powers said district staff is rising to the unique challenges of distance learning, and offered kudos for the positive attitudes he has already encountered in what he called a “complicated” situation. “I cannot say enough about our team across the district,” he said.
Powers said the district will keep paying staff, as long as staff members are available for duty.
He said paraprofessionals would be busy on the bus routes and helping to organize learning packets at school.
Teachers will still be reporting to work.
Powers said the admin team has been doing some forward-thinking about how to handle distance learning in the event that people are quarantined in their homes.
They have asked teachers to let them know if they are in need of computer hardware or software at home, in case of a quarantine.
Checking in with students twice a week
Powers said he has asked staff to develop a plan to ensure every student talks to a district staff person twice a week.
“We want to check on meals, ask about problems, let them know we care,” he said. “For some of these kids, we are the only other adults.”
Students may be contacted by phone or FaceTime.
Board members each indicated they would willingly take turns reaching out to students, too.
Powers reiterated that plans are well underway to meet students’ needs.
“We have the ability to do all sorts of things,” he said. “And we will.”
Odds and ends
In other business, the board:
• agreed to keep discussion about a potential bond referendum on the meeting agenda, but to scale back on planning for it, in light of the COVID-19 crisis. “We can continue the conversation as best we can,” Board Member Andy Engh commented.
• reviewed preliminary staffing needs for the 2020-21 school year.
• discussed what to do with the house built by vocational education students. Powers suggested local volunteers might be willing to help finish it, or it could be sold “as is” for a lesser amount.
• approved a list of requested staffing changes, including the resignation of longtime elementary teacher Cindy Kaczmarek. Board Chair Bill Aho offered special appreciation to Kaczmarek who was his kindergarten teacher.
• discussed how to plan for future school board meetings. Engh suggested preparations be made that would allow them to meet online at any time. Board members were in agreement that they would like to attempt to meet in person as much as was possible in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.