Prior Lake-Savage Area Schools staff held signs reading “Teachers deserve safety,” “Later start = Safer start,” and “Teachers supporting teachers,” as they filled the parking lot of the District Services Center Monday evening before the PLSAS Board met to discuss a recommendation to prolong the start of the school year.

Assembly organizer, Prior Lake-Savage Education Association President and fifth grade teacher at Five Hawks Elementary Shawn Beaudette said the group’s goal was to show the board that teachers need more time to prepare for the school year and to support their decision to prolong the school start date by the proposed recommendation of two days.

“They’ve got a very difficult job, very difficult decisions to make and no matter what decisions they make there's going to be people who agree and some people who disagree and I think it helps as a board member to know we’ve got some people here that are supportive of this. It's helpful to know some people have your back in making a tough decision,” Beaudette said. “We’re hoping that us showing some support and giving some encouragement will help them know you can make the decision and it’ll be OK and it will benefit our students. That's always our number one priority.”

Later that night, the board approved a recommendation to adjust the start of the school year to “give staff time to implement and practice new safety procedures; build relationships and connections with students and families; collaborate and plan to implement new learning models; support students transitioning to grades six and nine; and adjust to new staffing assignments,” a board presentation notes.

Staff concerns

Teachers are expected to return to their schools on Aug. 31, but many feel largely unprepared for the start of the school year, said LeAnn Weikle, a first grade teacher at Jeffers Pond Elementary.

In just the last few days Weikle was made aware of changes to her teaching team, which collaborates on learning plans for students throughout the year. She and the other teachers who thought they would be on a team had been preparing for the school year for the last month when they learned of the recent changes.

“We don't have our class lists yet, we just learned our team, orders haven’t been placed for essential things like the supplies we need to run our classrooms, math journals. We’re not going into this prepared which means it's more than likely not being well done,” Weikle said. “Whatever we end up doing, we need to do a good job, we need to do a good job for our students and our teachers and our families and it’s not being handled in a way that makes me feel good about what I have to do.”

An average day of in-classroom teaching, from her almost three decades of experience, is typically 8 to 10 hours, but during distance learning Weikle was working 14 to 16 hour days. She said a delayed start would give her more time to prepare for the possibility of all distance learning should COVID-19 case numbers within the county go up and prepare for the return of students to classrooms.

Solutions posed by Weikle include prolonging the start of the school year and changing the current proposed hybrid model.

“Hybrid learning sounds great but my students are going to come on Monday and Thursday and Tuesday and Friday which means if they are exposed to the germs now they're spreading it out over the whole week. One of the solutions to be safer is maybe we do group A comes Monday, Tuesday, group B comes Thursday, Friday and Wednesdays are all cleaning days,” she said.

Weikle, like many other staff members, acknowledged that there really is no good solution for fall education amid a pandemic. But the logistics of managing a classroom of a dozen first graders as well as a screen showing the faces of a dozen more learning from home, she said, doesn't seem like a set up for success.

“There’s a lot of things that sound good on paper but in practice and reality, they’re not and very few teachers were part of the process to make the decisions for what happens,” Weikle added. “When you have this many teachers come out, that means our voices haven't been heard.”

New start date

Instead of returning to school on Sept. 8, fall workshops will be extended through Sept. 8 and 9. On Sept. 10 elementary students will return for “welcome, family connections and student assessment days.” Sixth grade and ninth grade group A students will also return in-person on Sept. 10, while seventh, eighth and tenth through twelfth grade students will connect with their teachers via distance learning on Sept. 10 or 11. Sixth and ninth grade group B students will return to school in-person Sept. 11.

The change will allow sixth and ninth graders a smooth transition into their new buildings and assure staff feel comfortable and confident beginning the school year, PLSAS Superintendent Teri Staloch said.

“As we talked on Friday morning as a team, I wanted everyone to hear very loudly and clearly I have absolute confidence that we are ready to start on Sept. 8. Our health and safety systems and protocols are in place, we will, at that time, be in a place where all of the staffing questions and scheduling and those things are completed,” Staloch said. “That being said, I also want to be sure that our staff are absolutely set up for success. I want to be sure that we have a chance to practice and implement some of the new safety procedures that we have in place.” 

Because changes to the school year calendar were included in a previous resolution passed by the board, an official vote to prolong the start of the school year was not necessary.

The recommendation carried 6 to 1 with PLSAS Board Director Melissa Enger dissenting.

“For several different reasons, I don't go along with it,” Enger said. “We’ve got dozens of vulnerable teachers that deserve the necessary accommodations, we've got safety protocols that still need to be done and we've got teachers waiting for directives.”

At an Aug. 10 meeting, the board discussed the stakeholder engagement, such as staff focus groups, surveys and feedback, which was a part of the back to school planning process.

According to staff survey results provided by Kristi Mussman, Director of communications for PLSAS, "When asked, ‘When school/work is required to be in-person, will you be able to report to work onsite?’ 57 Prior Lake Savage Education Association members responded, ‘No, I will be requesting to work-from-home or a leave,’ 97 PLSEA members responded, ‘Yes, unless Child Care is not available, then I would need to request work-from-home or leave,’ and 418 PLSEA members responded, ‘Yes.’” 

An accommodation for teachers discussed during the meeting was the hiring of classroom supervisors. Teachers who need accommodations and choose to work remotely will still connect virtually with their students in the classroom, but supervision for the in-person students will be needed. They would assist teachers in working with their classroom and monitor students.