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Teaching in a pandemic: Eastern Carver County Schools back in service Sept. 8

Music teacher Eric Songer wonders if the technology will hold up. Science teacher Gillian Gale wonders what will happen if and when students or teachers get sick. Assistant Superintendent Erin Rathke sees more questions than answers in districts around the state.

Welcome back to the 2020-21 school year.

With students set to step on campus four days a week at the kindergarten through fifth-grade level, and twice a week in a two-group hybrid schedule for sixth through eighth grade on Sept. 8, Eastern Carver County Schools has just a few more days to prepare staff for what’s to come.

“We’re genuinely itching to get back with our kids with the anticipation, eagerness, determination measuring off the charts right now. However, there’s certainly a lot of apprehension accompanying those feelings,” said Andrew Waller, social studies teacher at Chaska Middle School East.

“We know we’ll be sharing the same air as 15-20 others for 80-90 minutes at a time in a confined classroom space,” Waller said. “While some are not especially concerned for themselves, many of us have family members we’re worried about, which means going back into isolation outside of school once the year begins so as not to unwittingly spread something to a loved one.”


Paramount to the learning of district students is keeping teachers and staff healthy and safe.

Protocols are in place for daily individual health monitoring, frequent hand washing, physical distancing, and use of face coverings. Protocols for those who are positive, symptomatic, or have contact with a COVID positive case will be followed.

Routine cleaning and disinfecting is key to maintaining a safe environment for students and staff.

“I feel if we can properly take the precautions by wearing masks all the time except when eating or when we are outside taking a mask break, keeping socially distanced, and consistently washing hands several times throughout the day, we can return to middle school safely,” said eighth-grade science teacher Gillian Gale of Chaska Middle School East. “I want to be back with students and I know they want to be back in school. I believe we are prepared to do what it takes to make this happen at East. I am hoping the community outside the school can follow suit. We need to have everyone on the same page to make this work.”

A revised teacher workshop week, which got underway across the District Aug. 31, focused on professional development. Staff gathered, socially distant, some watching remotely from their classrooms, to learn best practices in preparation for the school year.

Erin Rathke, assistant superintendent for District 112, said the workshop week included plenty of professional development.

“At elementary schools where we’ll have 100% of our students in the building, we’re really doing what we can to spread out. Principals and teachers have been working hard to plan to use the most physical space available. They’ve removed some furniture. Our classrooms resemble a much more traditional classroom with desks in row,” Rathke said. “It’s hard on teachers. Our district prides itself so much on personalized learning. This is not how they have been teaching.”

Thus summer Gale has been reading Jennifer Gonzalez’s “Cult of Pedagogy,” “Edutopia” and works by Katie Martin, author of “Learner-Centered Innovation.”

“I look for information on the best strategies to build connections with students in a hybrid and distance learning model. I am finding tons of articles with solid strategies about how to set up learning online. The most common theme is keep the learning to what is essential. Keep it streamlined by not using too many new tech tools. Build trust and authentic connections with students and families,” she said.

Easier said than done.

“The difference of building a relationship with a student you meet only online is much harder than a student you meet in person. The hybrid model will allow me to meet with students once a week for a block of about 82 minutes. I figure I will have the best relationship with my advisees, which I will see three times a week. If we pivot to online learning, the relationships we build will be critical,” she said.


At middle schools, with 50% of the students in the building, a block schedule is in place. That means a student will visit half of his or her classes one day a week in person, and another online.

Rathke said there will be a live teacher opening up classes for kids at home. While that teacher may not be available the whole class period, ECCS is asking teachers to be live with kids, giving them direction at home.

“Effective learning is interactive. My social studies classes typically consist of active engagement, followed up by almost immediate feedback from myself and/or peers. The personal interaction is made more difficult in the distance-learning model,” Waller said. “I can assign tasks for kids to complete at home, but because I’m teaching in person all day, it may be a full day or more before I can provide feedback on student work. And because of time constraints, the feedback might be less personal than what I’m able to provide in the classroom.

“In short, the content doesn’t change, but the majority of lessons have to be recreated or at least significantly adjusted because they were designed to be more interactive than current circumstances allow.”

For Eric Songer, a Chaska Middle School West music educator in the district since 1997, his classes are much about the relationships, the connections with other people in the room. Something that can only be replicated in person.

“Sitting there trying to teach a class, whether it being orchestra, band, it is about getting their instruments out and playing. These kids didn’t sign up to make music in their home. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Because of that, Songer will use what short time he has with students in person to make sure what he wants them to know they get.

Waller said teachers are finding it difficult to plan specific lessons not knowing how instruction will be delivered.

“So many of us are focusing on what we can right now, with the understanding that flexibility will be key. I intend to have an outline of content and skills on which to focus, but not plan lesson specifics more than one or two weeks out, he said.

“Another source of trepidation is the workload. Many put in long hours during distance learning last year and for many who are doing some level of distance learning along with in-person learning, the potential workload is tremendous. We’ll have to figure out how to balance attention to our in-person kids while still supporting the at-home kids, often times outside of school hours,” Waller added.

The district is currently testing technology with cameras and tripods, though equipment is on backorder.

“There is so much that still has to be figured out,” Songer said. “The biggest concern, besides the actual COVID virus, is the technology. Will it hold up? Today I spent a good hour trying to see how this is going to work with our grading system. We just don’t know. Things won’t be perfect, there will be trying moments, but it’s not because of a lack of effort, a lack of caring. Everyone is trying to put their best foot forward with all of this.”


“Last Thursday, we had our WEB day, where we bring in all of the sixth graders, introduce them to the school,” Songer said. “It’s a big day of team-building activities. While there was far less going on, it felt so good as a teacher. Something has been taken away from me the last five months. I can’t wait to get done with this week so we can see our students.”

Rathke said a majority of the teaching staff agree with Songer. They want to be in-person in front of students.

“They want the community to know how they feel. We want to share their voice. We value their voice, what they are sharing. They want to be safe, and we want them to be safe. We are following all MDE/MDH guidelines to ensure them safety. We all have to be in it together,” she said.

Songer believes in the long run, the experience learned from these times could benefit teachers, and most importantly, students.

“It’s made me a better teacher. I’ve been looking at our district learning targets, our curriculum, trying to better under what do I want them to know. The possibilities after this is over are amazing. Opportunities for the future, how we teach, will be so much better than anything I’ve ever done before,” he said.

Teaser 3

Red Birds three-peat?

Just a few wins away

Page 10

Teaser 1

Back to school

Student looks ahead

Page 6

Teaser 2

Health workers

Seeing a shortage

Page 9

Teaser 4

Primary ballots

Dozens came too late

Page 15

Amid district hybrid plans, private elementary and middle schools plan full reopening

The area's private schools, for grades pre-K to 8, are preparing to open with in-person learning.

Private high schools like Holy Family Catholic in Victoria and Southwest Christian in Chaska have already announced full reopenings. Private schools for younger students, including St. Hubert Catholic, Guardian Angels Catholic and St. John’s Lutheran, are following similar plans.

The state’s guidelines, which are based on the percentage of COVID-19 cases per county, allows each public school district to decide the majority of its reopening plans. In Eastern Carver County, kindergarten through eighth-grade students will use a combination of distance and in-person learning, while high school will be completely remote.

The newly announced in-person plans correlate with a spike in enrollment at all three private schools. Guardian Angels, the smallest of the three with a typical student population of 60, saw a 30% increase in enrollment, according to Principal Chuck Briscoe.

“I think families believe it’s going to be better for students to be in school with a teacher. Relationships are just as important as reading, writing, arithmetic ... if you have to distance learn, you have to do it, but I’ll never be convinced it’s as good,” Briscoe said.

St. John’s reopening plans were announced before the district’s decision, which sparked interest from many new families — as of Aug. 21, its enrollment is already higher than it was last fall, according to Principal Kendra Gilmore.

The switch to in-person is a welcome change from the mandatory distance learning instituted by Gov. Tim Walz in the spring, said St. Hubert Principal David Sorkin. The school has retained 98% of its students from last year and saw an additional increase in new families.

“There’s a lot of excitement from parents and kids now that they can be back with their classmates and friends. We’re not going to be foolish and think there’s no risk, but we are weaving a web of strategies together to mitigate that risk,” Sorkin said.


At around 60 students per grade, St. Hubert Catholic School in Chanhassen is one of the largest private grade schools in the area, but can still adhere to safety measures while maintaining in-person relationships, Principal Sorkin said.

“Our decision was founded on our belief of the value and importance of community and in-person learning. We’re still able to meet the recommendations and guidance from public health authorities and other health organizations,” Sorkin said.

The school is using a phased approach for their reopening on September 8 and is currently at Phase Three — in-person with online learning as needed. Those who require distance learning will use Google Classroom or Seesaw, depending on their grade level.

Physical classrooms will be reduced to 50% capacity, and all K-8 students will be required to wear masks or face shields. There won’t be any athletic teams this semester, but additional Masses have been added so all students can attend throughout the week.

Like St. John’s and Guardian Angels, families are expected to monitor students for symptoms and the school will do daily temperature checks.

Public or private, every school is dealing with the same concerns, but each school can decide how they want to handle them, Sorkin said.

“You can either put your head in the ground and cry about it, or you can figure out a way to address the situation to the best of your ability. Our community has never been one to shy away from challenges,” Sorkin said. “We’re pulling up our proverbial bootstraps and figuring out a way to move forward.”


St. John’s Lutheran School in Chaska serves preschool through eighth grade and is capping each grade at 18 students to ensure social distancing. K-8 will started Sept. 1, while preschool and pre-kindergarten will begin Sept. 8.

“It wasn’t a hard decision for us (to reopen) because we knew we would be able to do it safely. With our class sizes … we’re really in the sweet spot and can keep everyone six feet apart,” Gilmore said.

The school is currently in Phase One of a three phase plan. Right now, social distancing will be utilized when possible, transition times between classes will be staggered and cleaning will be more frequent, among other small changes. Masks will be required.

Parents and guardians must sign a commitment letter that requires them to screen their children daily and contact the school in case of exposure or symptoms. Absence policies must still be followed, though there may be some options for distance learning.

“Keeping that consistency is a huge factor for us. I wanted them to be able to be a part of our community, our family, and stay with those teachers they know and they love,” Gilmore said.

As both a principal and a parent of children attending St. John’s, Gilmore said she’s excited to be back in the school building.

“I’m looking forward to seeing everyone again ... there’s been a lot of support from parents and staff. This is a team effort,” Gilmore added.


Briscoe has spent decades in education, but July was his first month as principal of Guardian Angels Catholic School in Chaska. Unlike many of his previous schools, Guardian Angels is small enough to allow for a full reopening on Sept. 8 — the average class size is 10 children.

“I pride myself on learning everyone’s names,” he said. “Now, I can spend every day in the lunchroom and practice.”

It may be easier to socially distance, but the school is still taking precautions. Families have been asked to do health checks before sending their children to school, and staff will repeat them at the door. Lunch, outdoor activities and other programs will be staggered to limit unnecessary interaction. Drop off and pick up times are also modified.

Guardian Angels Catholic School students and staff, kindergarten through eighth grade, will wear face coverings throughout the day.

Some staff were cautious about returning, Briscoe noted, but they’re trusting the school’s extra safety measures. More modifications can always be made, he said.

Back to school night has been cancelled, but there’s one thing Briscoe is keeping — “Red carpet day,” when the school will celebrate their first day back. They’ll have a band, cookies and spread-out socialization.

“You’ve got to spice it up and have fun the first day. I want kids to be so excited that they can’t wait to get back for day two,” he said.

Editor's note: This story was updated to include a correction. Guardian Angels Catholic School students and staff, kindergarten through eighth grade, will wear face coverings throughout the day.