Updated: 6:51 p.m.
Close to 100 kindergarten, first and second graders returned to in-person learning at Park Brook Elementary in Brooklyn Park, Minn., on Tuesday — many of them wearing superhero, butterfly or flower-print face masks.
“The kids are back, and things are going very well. The staff here have said, ‘We’re going to be positive about this,’” said Park Brook Principal Scott Taylor. “I’ve sort of figured, once the kids are back, we’ll be just fine.”
Park Brook is one of many Minnesota elementary schools that’s chosen to bring its youngest learners back to in-person learning this week following a change in guidance from state officials last month.
On Feb. 1, they’ll welcome students in third, fourth and fifth grades back to in-person learning. About a third of their elementary students have chosen to remain in distance learning, however.
The students have dealt with COVID-19-related restrictions before. Last semester the school followed a hybrid model and students learned to space out their desks, and follow tape marks and arm measurements in hallways to keep themselves a safe distance away from their classmates and teachers.
“We have learned a lot,” Taylor said. “We all have to adjust and we get to choose what attitude we have. And I would say the staff here have chosen a very positive attitude. That doesn’t always mean it’s been easy.”
‘Kids are asking for work’
At North Elementary school in St. Peter, Minn., Principal Darin Doherty said kids were excited to get back to classes.
“In our virtual learning environment, kids have been like, ‘When are we coming back?’ Kids are asking for work. They’re certainly ready to go and come back in this space,” Doherty said.
But the process to resume in-person learning midyear has gone beyond figuring out masks, traffic flow and new cleaning routines to bring close to 450 kids back to their building.
“Some of the planning process includes — academically how are we systemically identifying where kids are at?” Doherty said. “ Because we know, we’ve accepted that kids aren’t generally at right now where they usually are at this point in the year academically. What’s our strategy to pinpoint and diagnose kids’ needs with reading, math, social skills? We spent a lot of time talking about — where are kids at emotionally and mentally? And these teachers are really spot on. They know their kids.”
One change for in-person learning compared to hybrid learning is that protocols around new COVID-19 cases in the school will be treated differently. In the fall semester, when the school was in a hybrid scenario, it was able to do contact tracing and isolate students and staff who’d been exposed to people with a COVID-19 diagnosis. Now, with more students and less distance in rooms, entire classrooms of students will have to quarantine if one person gets sick.
“They would go to distance learning for 14 days,” Doherty said. “So that teacher would teach from home, the kids have iPads, all families have access to internet hot spots. We basically send out a call, an email, a text notifying them.”
Vaccine doses in short supply
The return to in-person instruction coincided with a last-minute and limited rollout of vaccine for school staff. District leaders across Minnesota grappled with a sudden announcement Monday from Walz and other officials about a new pilot program aiming to get shots in the arms of teachers and other staff as early as this week.
But the amount of doses available to educators — 6,000 this week — is miniscule. In Farmington Area Public Schools, that initial supply amounted to 14 doses for the entire district. Superintendent Jason Berg said he hoped to see the doses ramp up over time.
“Our hope is, like everybody, that 14 turns to 28, turns into 60,” Berg told MPR News. “Because if it’s 14 at a time, it’s going to take a little while to get through everybody.“
Berg said district officials spent the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday reaching out to staff to get them signed up by the end of the day for their vaccination appointments. He said they were prioritizing groups by age, underlying conditions, whether they had frequent exposure to multiple groups of people.
His schools welcomed back kindergarteners to second graders on Tuesday, the first time they’ve been in physical classrooms since Nov. 19. His staff is getting the feel of teaching with face shields. State-mandated COVID-19 testing for staff is another layer of protection Berg hopes will keep his schools safe.
Not everyone has welcomed the shift, but he said it’s critical to communicate the reasons behind it.
“Every time we make a decision, whether it's to move to distance learning or to bring back students, it impacts people differently, especially mentally,” Berg said. “We need to give people time and space to go through that emotional roller coaster.”
The majority of this week’s 6,000 vaccine doses for educators have gone to public school staff — over 3,600. But more than 1,900 have also gone to Minnesota child care workers. Private schools received 220 slots.
State leaders have expressed frustration that they don’t have more vaccines to distribute yet.
“We would love to be vaccinating everyone at this point in time ... but that is not the case,” said Heather Mueller, deputy commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education. “Our hope is that next week we have more doses than we have this week.”
Your support matters.
You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.