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Updated: Start of Albert Lea schools pushed back to Aug. 24

Website now available with more information about district’s COVID-19 response

The Albert Lea school board voted unanimously Monday to move the start of school to Aug. 24 for additional planning for the new school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board discussed plans for the year based on state guidance presented last week by Gov. Tim Walz and leaders with the state departments of education and health.

The district is planning for students in pre-K through fifth grades to attend in-person for the first quarter, while students in grades six through 12 will take part in a hybrid model — a combination of in-person and distance learning on a rotating schedule. All students will take part in distance learning on Fridays to allow for deep cleaning at the schools, and the district will provide free child care to school-age children of essential workers on Fridays.

Families of students at any grade level also have the choice for their children to participate in strictly distance learning.

Superintendent Mike Funk said a survey sent out to parents of students on Friday that asked parents which type of model their child will participate in thus far has shown that about 75% of parents have selected in-person learning for their student while about 25% would like their child to participate in distance learning. District staff will begin reaching out to parents the remainder of this week who have not yet completed the survey.

The district also launched a new website at www.alschools.org/covid19 to provide more information to parents about health and safety protocols and plans under all three learning models.

Kathy Niebuhr, executive director of administrative services, said the site has many documents provided by the state on things such as best practices for wearing masks and what to do if a student or teacher has COVID-19 symptoms.

All students and staff will have their temperatures checked through an automated scanning system when they enter the building, and all students and staff will be asked COVID-19 related screening questions on a daily basis.

Buildings will be cleaned throughout the day in addition to the deep cleaning on Fridays, and hand sanitizer will be available throughout the buildings. Students and staff with hand-washing sinks in the classrooms will be encouraged to use those.

The site says masks will be worn by all students and staff members during regular instruction at the elementary level but will not be required for physical education or outdoor recess. If a student cannot wear a mask, teachers will work with the family to develop a solution in the best interest of the child.

The same will be true in grades 6 through 12, and masks will not be required for physical education.

Niebuhr said if there is a lab-confirmed case at the school, all who came in close contact with the person with the virus — which is classified as being within 6 feet for 15 minutes or more — will be asked to quarantine for 14 days, where they will continue their schooling at home until returning back to school and would not be counted as absent. Teachers who have to quarantine can continue to teach from home if feeling well.

Funk said a group of nurses, himself and others will meet each day to go through the data and screening answers from students to identify any COVID-19 hotspots or other concerns.

Jennifer Walsh, executive director of finance and operations, said students who will be attending school in-person will have lunch served in their classrooms or in small groups in the cafeterias at the schools. Students offsite will be able to pick up breakfast and lunch at Southwest Middle School or Albert Lea High School. On Fridays, meals will be distributed throughout the district for all students.

Walsh said at this point there is not a waiver for the new school year that allows students to come and pick up meals free of charge. If students qualify for free and reduced meals, they will have to show their student badges to get the meals. If they do not qualify, they will need to pay for the meals like they typically would at the school buildings.

She encouraged families to apply for the free or reduced lunch program.

Regarding transportation, students will be required to wear masks on school buses. Elementary students will be transported on buses at normal times, and secondary students will be picked up after the elementary students have been dropped off. Because of this, the secondary students will have a later start time, and they will also be picked up and taken home prior to elementary students at the end of the day at their typical time.

The district site states parents who choose the distance learning model will be able to utilize devices provided by the district. The elementary students who sign up for distance learning will not be assigned to a specific school but may have classmates from elementary schools throughout the district. The distance learning teachers will focus solely on this learning model.

Students will be able to participate in co-curricular activities regardless of which learning model they choose.

School board member Jill Marin asked whether the district anticipates needing to hire additional staffing and whether the district thinks it will be able to find substitute teachers when necessary.

Funk said he did not think the district would need to hire additional teachers with the new plans but may have to tap into interventionists, counselors and others for substitute teaching if necessary. He noted he would not support combining two classes for a day in the event a teacher is gone for that day.

School board member Angie Hanson asked if there would be conferences for students and parents before school, and Funk said there will be in-person conferences set up for students planning to attend school in-person and likely virtual conferences for families participating in distance learning.

Kindergarten roundup is slated for Aug. 17 for all of the elementary schools.

Funk said district administration met with representatives of the Albert Lea Education Association Monday afternoon to hear concerns and answer questions about concerns from teachers.

School board member Dennis Dieser asked if outside groups would be limited access to the school, and Funk said, yes, outside groups such as readers theater and other groups would not be allowed access at this time. Parents will be allowed to be at the school for an educational need, but otherwise they are trying to eliminate others.

Several of the school board members thanked the administration for its work thus far in planning for the new school year.

“This is just an anxious time for everybody,” board member Kim Nelson said.