Behind the Decision: A Q&A with Robbinsdale Interim School Superintendent
Choosing the type of learning model that school districts begin the year with is a complex decision with many variables. CCX News spoke with Dr. Stephanie Burrage, interim superintendent of Robbinsdale Area Schools, about the decision to start the year with its Distance Learning PLUS model. School districts, in part, are basing their decision on guidance from the state and county COVID-19 case rates.
How did you go about making that decision? What kind of feedback did you hear from staff members and families?
“We really did take the time,” said Burrage.
The District 281 interim school superintendent Burrage said the district first surveyed staff members last spring. The Governor Walz administration provided further guidance in July. And as COVID-19 case rates changed, additional surveys took place.
“We wanted to make sure we surveyed our parents, then we surveyed our staff,” she said.
Burrage said each school had a focus group to gather feedback from parents. She schools also gathered feedback from groups representing different demographics, including Latinx, Somali and American Indian families.
“What we also learned in our district is many of our families will turn in information for our surveys, but we don’t always get all of our families,” she said. “That’s why we went a couple different approaches. We did the survey. We did conversations in the building to get feedback.”
What the Surveys Revealed
In July: Survey of staff
- 60.7% wanted distance learning
- 25.1% wanted hybrid
- 13.3% wanted in-person learning
Survey of parents/guardians
- 39% wanted distance learning
- 32% wanted hybrid
- 29% wanted in-person
How challenging it it to get enough staff should the district move to a hybrid model?
Like other metro-area school districts, staffing is a big challenge, especially with hybrid models where teachers are needed for both in-person and distance learning. Burrage says the district sent out another survey this past week to see how many staff would be able to return to school.
“I didn’t want to put something out there to say ‘yes, we’re going in this model,’ and we didn’t have the staff to support it.”
COVID-19 cases in local communities was also another piece of the decision.
“This included the cities in which our staff and students live. That was another piece. We were looking at where do our staff travel to come into the district.
“Once we looked at that data, we said ‘you know what, we need to go with a smart start. And I have to say, and I say this all the time, we miss our students. Our goal is to get our students back so that we can return to in-person learning as soon as possible, but when it’s safe.
“It was a difficult decision to make because you have multiple perspectives, but we wanted to make sure that keeping our staff and our families and our students safe, that was our main priority.
“We’ve got masks, we’ve got the protective gear. That’s what we were preparing for.”
Burrage says every student will also have iPads this fall.
“We weren’t a 1:1 in the spring, K-12, we are 1:1 now. We did all the things we needed to do.”
Many families faced challenges with distance learning last spring. How will this fall be different than last spring?
“Last spring the districts were in crisis response to distance learning,” Burrage said. “It was crisis. Distance learning this fall will look different.
“It’s going to be teacher-led instruction. You’ll have in-person supports. We’ll have technology-integrated curriculum and instruction. There will be a schedule plan day, school day, so that parents and students will know here’s what’s happening in the day. They will have telehealth available. And then there will be some in-person special education and assisted technology evaluations that will take place.
“A parent may have an issue with technology, but then they need to call in and get specific help. They need to know where they can go to get that help. Or the socioemotional needs of kids may be there. We needed to make sure we have sites where there would be a counselor or a school psychologist or the staff that would be able to help our students at these sites.”
What about shifting the learning plan? What will it take for increased in-person learning?
Burrage says she checks in every two weeks with the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Eduation to check on case data.
“We have a conversation around our data.
“I think what schools are doing, and we’re doing the same, we literally are making sure we have both models in place, the hybrid and the distance learning model.
“Again, I go back to the staffing piece, because it’s the staffing, the facilities, it’s the transportation, all of those need to align to make sure we have the staff to move into a hybrid model.”
Is it even feasible to do hybrid given the staffing challenges?
“Yeah. Let me say this, our model, and we sent it out to our families this past week, we’re looking at in our elementary, an AA and a BB (grouping), so that we can have the contact tracing, cleaning. So when that AA group is in, we’ve made sure everything is clean before the BB group comes in.
“In that model, you’re right, as long as we have the staff that can manage that, and we feel we can be up to 50% capacity in our elementaries, that works. We knew that in our high schools, it really is about 30% capacity based on the class sizes, following all the guidelines, and the cleaning protocols, because you have that piece in there too. You have to be able to clean.
“Now, that would mean, of course, we would need additional staff members to clean, because under our current model (hybrid), we would not have enough staff to be able to manage that. So those are the things that we are preparing for.”
So it is possible?
“It’s not just the teacher piece, it’s a family piece as well,” said Burrage. “It’s about how comfortable you are with, especially if you have other health needs in your home or there’s some generational pieces there, how comfortable are you having people around your family or interacting with other people and coming back home.
“Our goal is to get our students back to in-person learning environment as soon as possible as long as it’s safe. That is our goal. I have to keep saying that. Because we do, we miss our students. Schools are about having students.
“We’re 281, we’re going to come together, as family, as staff, and we’re going to come together and manage this together. We’re not doing this in isolation.”
What about children with special needs?
“The (Distance Learning) Plus model allows for students to learn safely at home with access to in-person supports from our building when needed. This model is offered with our special ed students in mind as we know they may the additional supports and services.
“I shared with a group (Tuesday), I had on my shield and I had on my face mask. And I said for some of our students, I took my face mask off and I had on my shield because they needed to see my lips move. Think about that. That’s an accommodation for students. We have to always to look at and keep our most needy students in mind as we’re building our plans and our models.”
What advice would you have for parents for distance learning? Is there a best approach?
“I have a couple pieces of advice. Getting students back on a consistent schedule prior to school starting will be extremely helpful. I’m a grandmother, and I had my grandson with us for a period of time, so having a consistent schedule is important.
“Let school staff know what you need. We understand our families have varying needs during this time. And we encourage them to reach out to our school staff as needed so we can best support our families in their times of need.
“And I would say our efforts to serve students and families, we welcome additional engagement and we will use their voices to help us refine and shape what we’re doing. So the communication is key and that’s why we’ve been having these monthly conversations, because things may change from month to month.”