Since the end of June, teachers, administrators and staff at Jordan Public Schools have been planning for a variety of possibilities for the upcoming school year.
After an unpredictable ending to the 2019-2020 school year, the Minnesota Department of Education outlined three possible classroom models — in-person, online or a hybrid of the two.
Director of Teaching and Learning Erin Hjelmeland, with Jordan Public Schools, said the preparation process was “very labor intensive.”
“There was no guidance,” said Hjelmeland, “We were kind of in a stall point coming off of distance learning from last year.”
The district turned to parents and community members to ask for feedback on what they would feel comfortable with for modified in-person learning. Interim Superintendent Ranae Case Evenson said the overwhelming majority wanted their students to be back in the classroom as much as possible.
In late July, in coordination with health and safety guidelines from the state, the district determined it would implement a hybrid learning model this fall, where students use classroom space on a staggered schedule throughout the week in addition to online learning components.
Immediately after they found out the new guidelines, Hjelmeland said it was go-time for district staff.
“We were asking, ‘What can we make work? What’s going to be best for our students?'"
Case Evenson began as interim superintendent July 1, but she has been involved in planning for this fall since former superintendent Matt Helgerson began his transition out of the role in early June. While she’s aware that many unknowns remain, there are two major areas of concern she wants to continue to focus on going forward: closely monitoring guidance from the state and public health within Scott County, and prioritizing the academic success of students in the district.
For the optimization of learning at the elementary age, it’s important for these students to be in the classroom as much as safely possible, Evenson said.
In order to do this, teachers had to get creative with the space available to them. In general, smaller learning clusters and split classrooms will allow for social distancing. Some classes will utilize larger spaces like the gym to spread out or even go outside as weather allows.
Rather than the typical playground use, recess will happen in classrooms, as well as lunch.
At the middle school level, fifth- and sixth-graders will be prioritized in terms of building space. Still considered “younger learners,” these students benefit most from in-person instruction, Case Evenson said.
Hjelmeland said JPS’ access to devices at a one-to-one ratio has been a benefit to the district during these times, allowing teachers to rely on technology to support learning in partnership with small-group discussions.
“Even though there are more protocols in place, the learning hasn’t changed,” said Hjelmeland. “Our teachers are doing a phenomenal job of taking advantage of different spaces.”
At the upper-middle school and high school levels, classes will follow an ABABC schedule. The “C” day is intended to be a flexible learning day where music groups, concurrent enrollment labs and other special classes with unique spacing needs will take place.
Elective classes like art and music will be included in the ABAB rotation. Students in the special education program will have individualized schedules developed along with special education staff in order to meet their personal needs, said Hjelmeland.
In addition to the hybrid model, all Minnesota districts are required to offer a virtual option for families who want to keep their kids’ learning online full-time. Jordan Virtual Academy provides online instruction with teachers from JPS.
“We don’t want to minimize the apprehension a lot of families are feeling,” Evenson said. “Regardless, we are here to partner and create a positive educational experience.”
Orientation week, which took place Aug. 31 through Sep. 4, sought to help with the transition of back to school.
“These first days I’ve been in every building every day,” said Case Evenson. “If I had to describe the environment in just a couple of words, I’d say it felt positive and calm.”
All students will have staggered start dates for returning to classrooms beginning Tuesday, Sept. 8.
Evenson said she wants to focus on creating a positive learning environment, even among new rules and regulations like one-way hallways, less close social interaction and wearing masks.
“They’re kids,” said Case Evenson. “They’re going to need frequent reminders as we go. But our students are amazing, and I have no doubt they’re going to figure everything out quickly.”
In addition to cooperation from students, Evenson said she has felt overwhelming support and understanding from the wider community.
“I anticipated this community would rise to the occasion, and they have,” said Case Evenson.
Hjelmland also expressed pride in how students and families have adapted to rapidly changing circumstances that will only continue to change.
“COVID numbers change almost weekly, so we have to stay up to date on changes with guidance,” Hjelmeland said. “It’s such a fluid environment.”
She’s also proud of the way district teachers continue to remain flexible.
“Our teachers are doing amazing things in the classroom,” she said. “They are stepping outside their comfort zones to really change the way things are being delivered. We’ve always seen that in education, but we’re seeing it on a new level now.”
As the school year begins, Case Evenson said she encourages parents to continue communicating with principals and teachers, who want to hear their feedback.
“We all have the same goal, and that’s to keep our students and staff safe,” Case Evenson said.