Although this year’s back-to-school may look different for Belle Plaine students, one thing hasn’t changed: Their teachers are very happy to see them.
“We’re very excited to have our students back in the building,” said Belle Plaine High School Principal Melinda Chevalier. After a mostly virtual spring semester, teachers welcome the opportunity to have their students in class for a few days a week.
According to the guidelines developed by the Minnesota Department of Health, the high school is following a hybrid model to keep their buses and buildings at 50 percent capacity and allow for social distancing.
Faculty members have split 7th through 12th-grade students into two groups. 'A'-group students will generally attend in-person classes on Mondays and Tuesdays with virtual learning on Wednesdays and Thursdays. 'B'-group learners will attend school on Wednesdays and Thursdays and learn virtually on Mondays and Tuesdays. Both groups will learn virtually on Fridays.
If a family doesn’t feel comfortable sending their student to school, they have the option for online-only classes.
“Parents always have the choice to do distance learning,” said Chartfield Elementary Principal Kimberly DeWitte. All of the Belle Plaine schools have organized their technology to allow distance learners to attend classes at the same time as their in-school students. Each distance learning student receives a Zoom link to access live classes.
“The distance learners will get to participate just like the in-person learners,” said DeWitte. “The only difference is that the distance learners will upload any of their art or worksheets or math problems through our Seesaw application and in-person learners will hand it in to their teacher.”
Over the summer months, faculty put careful thought into reorganizing classrooms for maximum safety. Desks and tables were rearranged to put extra distance between students. At Trinity Lutheran, each student will receive supplies that will be designated for their use only until the end of the year, rather than sharing common tools, such as markers or rulers.
“Some activities sadly had to be put away because they were potentially too hard to sanitize, such as plush-type hand puppets,” said lead teacher Susan Van Houten. “We’re rethinking what activities we do.” Each school follows state-approved sanitization standards, which include extra disinfecting of surfaces, washing hands and wearing masks.
Collaboration is still an important part of learning. Rather than working in physical groups, teamwork will be encouraged through technology. Schools also put thought into creating community and fostering friendships despite social distancing. At Our Lady of the Prairie Catholic School, students are split into individual cohorts, with grades 1 through 3 and 4 through 6 grouped together.
“Our plan is to keep things as normal as possible, even with everything that’s going on,” said OLP Principal Wendi Alessio. “Our classes will be moving in cohorts, but they’ll get to see each other at recess and lunch. At lunch we will all be in the lunchroom together, but we will be social distanced and you will be with your cohort. The cohorts foster that feeling of family and we’re small enough that we feel like a big family anyway.”
Regardless of their attempts to normalize the 2020-2021 school year, teachers are aware that some students may have difficulty adjusting to the necessary changes. Oak Crest Elementary’s back-to-school training emphasized creativity when assisting kids through what might be a potentially confusing time.
“We’ve done some trauma-informed teaching so that our teachers are ready to support all our families and students who are coming in from different life situations,” said Principal Ben Tressel.
Belle Plaine public schools are continuing their socio-emotional curriculum, first instituted last year. The program emphasizes lessons in empathy, tolerance and understanding and includes the mantra “Be RED,” which stands for Respectful, Engaged and Dependable.
“Every day in advisory, our students and staff members watch a 10-minute video that revolves around different areas of social and emotional health,” said Chevalier. “It helps our students with self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and decision-making. Our district makes that a huge priority, and more than ever that’s going to be a key piece to offering socio-emotional support to our students as well as academic support.”
As the academic year progresses, each school plans to continually evaluate their learning protocols, making changes as necessary to better assist their young learners. Tressel applauded the resourcefulness of all teachers during COVID-19’s uncertain times.
“Our teachers are working incredibly hard to prepare for a unique situation – it’s like being a new teacher,” said Tressel. “We want to jump into the school year and be able to monitor and adjust. That is going to be a challenge for teachers, but we are working really hard to make sure that we are going to create great learning experiences for all kids.”