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Learning at a distance: Parents opt for their students to start the school year at home

The first days of school for students are usually filled with hugs from friends they haven’t seen all summer, tours of new buildings, warm greetings from glowing teachers and brand new pencil boxes lined with fresh crayons and markers, but there’s nothing too normal about going back to school during a pandemic.

Many students have returned to the classroom for the first time since spring, as COVID-19 left them to finish the remainder of the 2019-20 school year from home, and many students won’t be returning to the classroom at all this fall as parents opt for their children to take the school year online.

Within the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District, approximately 22% of the students have opted to attend school via the Distance Learning Academy. According to a K-12 Enrollment and Learning Model Data chart presented to the board at its Sept. 14 meeting, this breaks down to:

  • 18.2% of all elementary students or 668 students
  • 24.7% of all middle school students or 538 students
  • 23.7% of all high school students or 674 students

For parents, making the decision to keep their children home at the start of the school year was no easy task.

Kelley Karau, parent of a Hidden Oaks Middle School sixth-grader and a Prior Lake High School ninth-grader, spent two hours sitting down and drafting a school schedule for the first week for her youngest student. She poured over Schoology software, Google Meet times and assignments to determine when her student would need to be logged in and in front of the screen.

After experiencing online learning in the spring, Karau hoped over the summer months that the district would adopt a hybrid model that worked for her students. When the district released its current model that requires students to alternate between in-person and online learning every other day with Wednesdays as flex days, she knew it would not provide enough consistency for her sixth grader.

The transition to online learning in the spring was “chaotic” and there was no shortfall of tears, she said.

“It’s just me and my kids here. I'm a single parent who's trying to manage everything. My fifth grader at the time wanted to quit and I wanted to let him quit,” Karau said.

But with the hybrid model not being optimal and so much unknown in the coming school year, “I just felt like it was best to keep them home,” she said.

Both her students checked in on Infinite Campus Sept. 11. Their first day of online learning was Sept. 14 and it proved to be no easy feat.

“This morning, it was a challenge. I’m trying to work from home to maintain my job full time while also trying to help my sixth-grader navigate all these brand new things, and it’s difficult,” Karau said. “My ninth-grader is very self sufficient. I haven’t seen him all day except for when he comes up for food and says everything is going fine.”

Karau works from home full time and spent the school day juggling her schedule with her youngest students’.

“Honestly, it’s 3 p.m. on the first day and I’m exhausted," she said. "I’ve been walking back and forth and managing my schedule and my work and thankfully I work for an employer who is very forgiving and very understanding of what everyone is going through, but it’s still exhausting.”

While Karau's preference was to send her children to school for at least two days a week, she opted for her students to try out distance learning for the first quarter as the district originally intended “to allow opportunities at the end of each quarter to enter into the hybrid learning model or DLA for the subsequent academic quarter,” a Sept. 1 email from Superintendent Teri Staloch to PLSAS families states.

However, distance learning numbers more than doubled what initial surveys sent to parents indicated, the email states.

“Given the jump in families requesting DLA for their students, the district has had to adjust planning steps accordingly,” it reads.

Due to factors such as staffing and building capacities, the district can no longer accommodate changes on a quarterly basis and is asking parents to decide if their children will attend via the hybrid model or distance learning for the remainder of the school year by Oct. 9, the email states.

“Between the staffing and busing and space issues as well as all the other parameters with child nutrition services and kids company, with every change there's more changes that have to be made to accommodate everyone and so to be able to do that in a timely manner without completely burning out all of our staff was looking to be very difficult,” PLSAS Board Chair Lee Shimek said.

The option to switch between learning models quarterly played a role in Karau’s decision to keep her children home for the start of the school year, she said.

“Ultimately, we decided because it was only a one-term commitment, meaning first quarter, I decided alright let’s give this a try, let's let the kinks be worked out. Maybe the second term will go better,” she said.

While Karau understands how challenging navigating all the uncertainties of COVID-19 can be, she was disappointed to hear she had to make a decision for the entirety of the school year.

“If these numbers go down by the spring I absolutely want to send my kids to school or even if they’re good after Christmas I want to be able to send them to school, so it’s not an ideal situation and I don’t want them home. They need that social interaction,” Karau said.

Christine Percival, parent of a Twin Oaks Middle School eighth-grader and a PLHS senior, opted for her middle-schooler to attend the first quarter online as well.

“We are actually likely to switch to hybrid for the rest of the year because I personally am not emotionally ready to commit him to distance learning for an entire year,” Percival said. “I just feel like in the spring I don’t know what life will be like and I just can't see making him finish his eighth grade year at home if everything can be semi normal say in April, May, June.”

Percival let her children choose which learning model they wanted for their school year. For her middle school student Broden Percival, this means sitting at a desk in his room with his laptop completing his course work. For her senior Kian McNerney, it will mean a mix of at-home and in-person learning. Both students chose a model they felt best fit their particular learning styles, she explained.

But having one student attending in-person is a greater risk of exposure. Over the summer, the family tried to limit their contact with outside groups, so they could visit with Percival’s parents.

“Now that Kian is going to be going to school and being exposed to a lot more people, we’re not going to be able to be around my parents so that's going to be a lot more difficult,” she said. “For those people that are going to hybrid we all have to rely on each other to make good decisions. I think we're going with some faith that all the high schoolers are going to do their best here.”

Kian will return to school two days out of the week and spend his last year among friends, but he might not get to experience some of those typical senior moments like the homecoming football game, watching the marching band take the field, school assemblies or dances.

“In the spring there was a lot of worry about those people graduating at the end of 2020 but they really only missed out on the spring whereas ... the 2021 graduates are really going to have their senior year kind of uprooted compared to what typical seniors have had," Percival said. "I am a little concerned about some of those experiences they're not going to have or they’re going to be different but that's part of the reason why I think Kian chose to do the hybrid was that he would get to see some of those people and have somewhat of a normal senior year.”

While there are health concerns and a lot of unknowns, Percival is looking forward to her children returning to a schedule and some sense of normalcy.

High school volleyball was moved to the spring this season due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Prior Lake father and teenage son charged with first-degree murder for drug-sale killing (copy)

A 17-year-old Prior Lake boy faces life imprisonment if convicted of the recent charges brought by a grand jury for his alleged involvement in the shooting death of a Burnsville teen earlier this year.

Last month, a grand jury indicted Braylen Justice Miller and his father, Taran Cortez Miller, 44, on first-degree murder charges for the death of sixteen-year-old Samuel Keezer.

Both face two counts of first-degree murder; one count relates to premeditated murder, the other for murder with intent while committing a felony. If convicted, Minnesota law assigns a mandatory life sentence.

The father and son met Keezer in the Target parking lot in Savage on Feb. 28 to sell him marijuana, according to charging documents. Taran Miller told investigators he shot Keezer in the head inside their vehicle when he thought Keezer “was going to take the marijuana and run out of the car without paying.”

Following their arrests in March, charges were filed against Taran Miller for second-degree murder and Braylen Miller faced two counts of aiding and abetting second-degree murder in the juvenile court system.

The Aug. 14 indictments mark a major development in the case. Taran Miller’s former charges each carried a maximum sentence of 40 years in prison, and Braylen Miller, 16-years-old at the time of the shooting, will now be prosecuted as an adult.

The case’s third defendant, TanyaMarie Esthell Miller, 43, told investigators she knew her husband sold drugs with their son, according to charges.

She pleaded guilty last month to two counts of aiding an offender; one count relates to being an accomplice after the fact, the other to harboring an offender. She is set to be sentenced on Nov. 6.

Officers were called to Target around 7:30 p.m. the night of the shooting.

Multiple witnesses reported hearing what sounded like a firecracker before seeing the victim on the ground, Savage Police Chief Rodney Seurer said.

Officers found Keezer bleeding heavily with critical head injuries. He was able to say his name and that his head hurt before he began vomiting, charges state. He was transported to the Hennepin County Medical Center, where he was placed on life support and later died.

Police said Keezer arrived at Target in a vehicle with three or four other occupants. A witness in the vehicle with Keezer that night told officers Keezer planned to meet Braylen Miller and run off with the marijuana.

The witness told investigators he drove to a nearby parking lot to wait while Keezer got into Braylen Miller’s vehicle in the Target parking lot.

After Keezer didn’t return, the witness found him lying on the ground and bleeding, then fled.

Investigators said surveillance video showed Keezer falling out or being pushed out of a vehicle that was then driven away.

Police connected the vehicle to Braylen Miller.

Investigators were preparing to search the Miller family home and garages when they spotted Braylen Miller running near his house, where they arrested him.

Taran Miller and TanyaMarie Miller were also taken into custody on March 3, according to arrest data.

After his arrest, Braylen Miller told police he went to St. Paul with his father to buy the marijuana to sell to Keezer.

Keezer initially didn’t show up to their first meeting, Braylen Miller told investigators, and instead suggested meeting at Target.

His father told him to go inside the house and get the gun, according to charges.

When Keezer got into the front passenger seat of their vehicle at Target, he kept the door ajar while handling the marijuana. Braylen Miller stated his father shot Keezer in the head, then pushed him out of the vehicle, police said.

Taran Miller then told his son to drive away and called his wife to tell her what happened.

When they returned home to their fourplex residence on Sue Ann Lane, TanyaMarie Miller went to the neighboring unit to retrieve the garage key and hide the vehicle.

In a statement to investigators, Taran Miller’s story matched his son’s.

Taran Miller said he disposed of the bullet casing left in his vehicle and gave the firearm to his sister-in-law at her home in Mankato. His wife drove him.

Officers recovered the murder weapon in a black lock box inside the Mankato home.

A few days after the shooting, the victim’s family and friends gathered in the Target parking lot for an evening vigil. “We love Sam” and “Sam’s World” were among the messages left at a memorial made of flowers, candles and notes.

An obituary described Keezer as “independent, confident, funny, and fearless” and “the most amazing son his parents could have asked for.”

“Sam was taken too soon but will live on through all that knew and loved him,” the obituary reads. “He is in our hearts and will never be forgotten.”

An omnibus hearing for Taran Miller’s case is scheduled for Nov. 6. District Judge Colleen King will preside over the hearing.

Braylen Miller’s omnibus hearing, to be presided over by District Judge Christian Wilton, is set for Dec. 16.