School Board hears district’s COVID-19 plan

By: 
Scott Bestul

Members of the Rushford-Peterson School Board were practicing social distancing at their March 16 meeting, but they were confronting the district’s Coronavirus response plan face-to face. Normally seated shoulder-to-shoulder in the district’s meeting room, board members were separated by at least a chair-width as they heard Supt. John Thompson and other administrators outline the plan for the upcoming weeks of the school year.

Emergency response plan

Supt. Thompson informed the board that he, and other area administrators, received word last Saturday evening (March 14) to call in the next day to receive updates about upcoming school closings. “I’ll give Minnesota credit,” Thompson said. “They gave us two days warning; in Iowa they got two hours.”

After hearing the Sunday announcement about the eight-day school closure, Thompson, other R-P administrators, teachers and staff swung immediately into action, meeting for over two hours to devise a plan that would carry them forward in the weeks ahead.  

That plan started with the last day of student attending  school on Tuesday, March 17. “There will be no homework for the next eight days, a time in which we’ll proceed with plans on how to achieve distance learning,” Thompson said.

Thompson said a large portion of the Sunday meeting was devoted to the best methods for implementing distance learning. “We don’t have any experience with that [distance learning], which is far different than the e-learning days we utilize during school closings for weather. But we’ll get better and better as time goes on.”

One of Thompson’s primary concerns was the delivery of food to students eligible for free or reduced-priced breakfasts and lunches, as well as the weekend backpack program.

Noting that those programs will need to continue, Thompson admitted, “It’s an incredible challenge, not only in how to pay for it, but for getting it to students,” he said. “Will we have to deliver that food? Have them pick it up? We’re still working out the details of that.”

The district must also provide childcare for medical professionals. “We’re tasked with providing that by the first day without student contact [Wednesday] and at this point we’re still figuring it out,” Thompson said. “We’ll rely largely on paras for staffing it, I believe, and Lisa [Lawston] is doing a good job of setting that up.”

Lawston noted that final numbers for childcare weren’t available, but she anticipated between 10 and 50 kids. “We’ve developed an application and are accepting them now,” she said. “We’ve developed a two-weeks-out plan and will go from there after these first eight days are up.”

While many specifics of how things will be run and maintained remain unknown, Thompson stressed that “kids are our focus today and going forward. We need to provide leadership for them and project a “can-do” attitude. We’re not professional on-line educators, but we’re going to do our best. If we need to conduct an emergency meeting to address concerns or problems, then we’ll do that.”

In the discussion that followed, high school principal Timm noted that steps are being taken to insure that all students had online capability. “We basically asked every student if a) they had a device, and b) they had internet access,” he said.

Timm noted that at present all students in grades 6-12 should be set, and elementary principal Shepard said students in grades 3-5 are supplied with a device. “Right now, teachers are embracing the challenge and with time we should get pretty good at it,” Shepherd said. Thompson noted that the district now has 50 new Chromebooks available for students currently lacking one. “These are the result of the recent assessment made by the state, so you can thank them for that silver lining,” he quipped.

Timm also noted that district technology coordinator Corey Mattson was working to obtain “hotspot” devices that would enable internet access in homes lacking sufficient WiFi capability. “We’re getting these devices from Verizon, and they’ll allow rural residents to access the internet with no data changes to an existing cell phone plan.”

Board members Prinsen and Wade offered the use of their Chromebooks if needed, but Timm assured them that likely wouldn’t be necessary. “Thanks to board members who supported our 1:1 program, every kid from grades 3-12 should have the equipment they need.”

Transportation was another concern, Thompson noted. “We have a contract with Bernard Bus service that includes a reduced fee for drivers when we have snow days, but of course this is different; we didn’t have an agreement for a [potential] month-long closure. The state expects to continue paying hourly employees, and I’d imagine that would include them.” Director Linder asked, “Bus drivers are considered our employees?” Thompson replied, “That’s my understanding at this point.”

Thompson said that, apart from childcare and teachers, the building would be closed to everyone for the next eight days. “Teachers will have that time to prepare for the distance learning process, which is going to be a lot of extra work; it’s going to be like prepping for a sub, while still working full time. Nutrition staff will be here full-time, and paras as needed. We’ll keep people updated with information with e-mail blasts, as well as updates to our Facebook page and the district website.”

Director Wade thanked Thompson and district administrators and staff for “all the work you’ve done prepping for this situation.”

In other updates, Timm noted that the senior class trip, has been cancelled, and the district is working to refund any money raised by seniors. The sophomore class trip to Washington D.C., scheduled for mid-June, is in limbo. “Any students who cancel from 30 days and out will get a full refund,” he said. “Prom and graduation; I hate to even think that far out. We’re communicating with other districts and I think the feeling is, if one cancels [prom] we all do.” Shepherd noted that all field trips for the elementary are “on hold.” Extra-curriculars, which include not only sports, but speech, band, choir, etc. will not be able to practice for the next eight days, minimum. The state is not allowing any contests until at least April 6.

Thompson admitted the drastic changes and disrupted schedules will be hard, especially on students. “You always worry about mental health and you can’t help but worry about the kids affected by this,” he said. “The best-case scenario is that this is all better within a few weeks and everyone can say ‘Wow, you over-reacted. If that’s the case, I’m fine with that.”

Other business

Thompson presented board members with potential changes to the district’s school discipline policy regarding parental notification when a student is removed from class.

The present policy is to inform parents after 10 removals, but both Timm and Shepard noted that they inform parents long before that number is reached. After some discussion, the board voted the keep the policy language as its written.

In the weeks leading to the April meeting, board members will be reviewing language changes to district policy regarding weapons in school, search of students’ lockers, desks, and personal possessions, and the protection and privacy of pupil records. The board is expected to act on language changes to those policies.

Thompson and Laura Hahn reported on a new requisitioning process teachers and staff members can use for ordering materials. In the past, the requisitions had to be made on paper forms that had to pass through many channels before approval. Under the new system, requisition requests are made electronically and can be reviewed, compared to budget limits and approved (or denied) in a faster and more streamlined manner. Thompson thanked Hahn for her hard work in setting up the new system.

Schedule

The next regular meeting of the R-P school board is scheduled for Monday, April 20, at 5:30 p.m. All members of the public are encouraged to attend.