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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

In the classroom, at home, or both?

Ely school officials plan for a unique school year

Keith Vandervort
Posted 7/30/20

ELY – In anticipation of the release of new state guidelines concerning how K-12 education will be delivered here this fall, the ISD 696 administration team updated school board members during …

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In the classroom, at home, or both?

Ely school officials plan for a unique school year


ELY – In anticipation of the release of new state guidelines concerning how K-12 education will be delivered here this fall, the ISD 696 administration team updated school board members during a study session Monday night.
Following Minnesota Department of Education directives, school districts across the state are tasked with devising a three-pronged plan of distance learning, returning to in-school learning, or a combination of the two, as public health caution over the coronavirus ramps up ahead of the start of the new school year.
At Ely Public Schools, Superintendent Erik Erie, K-5 Principal Anne Oelke, and 6-16 Principal Megan Anderson are spending the summer studying the various scenarios, taking into account the experiences of the abrupt closing of school last March when COVID-19 shut down the entire community. They hope to formulate a workable plan for the 2020-2021 school year once state guidelines are revealed.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz and MDE officials were scheduled to release the education guidelines this week.
Erie said school administrators have been meeting with faculty teams and support and facilities staff to solicit input and ideas. “We surveyed families about distance learning and received feedback on how well things went last spring and how things didn’t go so well,” he said. “We know there were problems with distance learning. Many of our families had difficulty with that.” That feedback is being incorporated into the planning for the new school year.
A survey conducted just last week asked families for their opinions on possible learning scenarios heading into the new school year, transportation issues, child care needs, and their comfort level with various educational changes.
“Clearly, we don’t have all the information to tell (families) exactly what our plans are, but we are starting to collect some good data. We are getting some good feedback,” Erie said.
He admitted, “Many families are not comfortable with sending their students back to school this fall, but it is less than I expected. That was nice to see, that they are putting some faith in our school.”
More personal protective equipment has been ordered, including face masks and face shields, along with more cleaning supplies. Erie said a local community group has offered to help provide face masks for students.
“We are posting for additional temporary custodial positions and for an extra nurse,” he said. “If we go with a hybrid model (both in-school and at-home learning scenarios), we will need extra cleaning in the two buildings. We need nurses in both buildings for temperature checks and other health and safety protocols. We want to make sure we are doing everything and show the community that if families decide to send their students here to school, we are taking every precaution possible to make sure the students are safe.”
All hiring recommendations would be approved by the school board.
Erie described some changes already implemented to the school buildings and classrooms. “We are having to limit the furniture in our classrooms, remove rugs and other items, and structure our class for social distancing,” he said.
Consultants from The Institute for Environmental Assessment are set to visit the ISD 696 campus this week and meet with various school leaders to continue to make changes across the campus that pertain to COVID-19 protocols.
Erie noted that new state school transportation guidelines released last week will allow for more student passenger capacity on school buses. Restrictions put in place by the Department of Health were deemed too restrictive by the Department of Education.
“We are now looking at a 50-percent capacity, so that is moving us from 13 students on a 77-passenger bus to about 36 passengers,” he said. “That is going to make a big difference for us.”
Computer connectivity and access to the Internet for many Ely-area families during the distance learning protocol last spring was one of the most limiting educational factors expressed by many students and teachers.
As reported in the July 17 issue of the Timberjay, a statewide MDE survey indicated that Ely-area parents reported nearly three times as much difficulty with internet access, 21.9 percent, versus just 7.5 percent statewide.
“(Internet) connectivity was a huge issue for many of our parents,” Oelke said.
Erie added, “When I read that only seven and a half percent of people had internet problems, I asked, ‘Where do they live?’”
Education delivery plans continue to evolve as more information is received. More family and faculty surveys will be conducted once the 2020-2021 school year plan is established. The school year is set to begin on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
1:1 Initiative
School board members reviewed and acted on a proposal to implement a district-wide program to distribute and support individual digital learning devices for all students.
Dubbed the 1:1 Initiative, the program is part of ISD 696’s 21st Century Learning programming and allows for technology tools to be implemented into the classroom to provide updated learning opportunities and engagement for all students, whether or not distance learning protocols are in place.
As many as 130 such devices were distributed to Ely students last spring during the mandated distance learning period to address the district’s inequalities in education delivery, Erie said.
The 1:1 Initiative for the 2020-2021 school year calls for the distribution, teacher training and technical support of 540 Chromebook computers, at a cost of $350 each, for students in grades 2-12, as well as necessary network infrastructure improvements to integrate the new technology.
“Equity issues with access to technology have created a class of “haves” and “have nots” for our students,” Erie said. “We have a responsibility to address these issues so our students are on a level playing field when it comes to learning opportunities.”
He added that the opportunity for funding and school budget transfers, precipitated by COVID-19 and the federal CARES Act, is available now. ISD 696 received more than $87,500 in federal funding to help address technology needs to aid in distance learning.
“State guidelines have allowed for fund balance transfers from district funds normally reserved for very specific purposes to be used instead for the purchase of technology needs,” Erie said.
Distance learning, while not the most advantageous of educational delivery systems, is the new reality in the age of COVID-19 and updated technology is necessary, he added.
Erie proposed one-time reserve fund balance transfers totaling as much as $375,000 to fund the initiative.
“These fund balance transfers and use of CARES Act money still will allow the district to maintain an unreserved fund balance goal of more than 20 percent (as required by board policy), and have other reserved fund balances (nearly $149,000) to support future program needs,” he said.
A district technology team has been meeting for the past several months to discuss device specifications, network infrastructure requirements, future growth scenarios, and review bid proposals in developing the 1:1 Initiative, according to Erie.
“The number of devices recommended for purchase is based on student enrollment projections, teacher numbers, and a limited supply of back-up devices,” he said. He noted that the new Chromebooks will be used by students in grades 2-12. Students in Kindergarten and first-grade students will have access to the district’s repurposed existing iPads. Other existing devices will be repurposed as needed, Erie added.
During a special meeting following the study session, school board members voted 6-1 to approve the 1:1 Initiative. James Pointer voted against the motion.
In other action, the board accepted the resignation of elementary teacher Amanda Vanderbeek, following seven years at ISD 696. In her resignation letter, Vanderbeek indicated that she will remain in Ely, having accepted a position as the Director of Faith Formation and Youth Ministry at St. Anthony Catholic Church.
“I plan to keep up on my teaching licensure so that I can hopefully do some substitute teaching and remain a presence here at the school,” she wrote.


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