Secondary schools have less distance but other new safeguards

Kristine Goodrich, The Free Press, Mankato, Minn.
·5 min read

Mar. 5—With most secondary students now back in Mankato Area Public Schools buildings four days a week, there is no longer enough space to maintain 6 feet of social distancing.

The middle and high school have implemented some new coronavirus mitigation strategies and staff are reinforcing continued strategies, district officials say.

Mankato secondary schools moved last week from a hybrid model with each student in person two days per week to a new model with most students at their school four days per week. Some students continue to opt to learn from home. Wednesdays are remote learning days for all students to give teachers time with their full-time distance learners.

"Students are so happy to be back in school," West High School Principal Sherri Blasing said. "Have they been learning online, yes, but nothing can replace the authentic learning experiences that happen when we come together."

The model shift came after the state reduced schools' social distancing requirement. Now schools must keep students at least 3 feet apart in classrooms and cafeterias instead of 6 feet.

After so many months keeping 6 feet apart, East High School Principal Jeff Dahline said some students felt crowded with most of their peers back in the building at the same time. But at least 3 feet of distance is being maintained at all required times, he said. And buildings are still at lower occupancies than normal because some students — around 25% at East — are doing distance learning.

New precautions

Hundreds of plexiglass dividers have been brought into classrooms that have students seated at tables at least 3 feet but less than 6 feet apart. Other classrooms have individual desks that are at least 3 feet apart.

The schools also have upgraded air purification systems. New bipolar ionization systems help kill airborne virus particles, said Director of Facilities and Safety Scott Hogen.

In addition to assigned seating in classrooms, QR codes on high school cafeteria tables now also help building administrators trace and quarantine students who have been in close proximity to someone who has become infected with COVID-19.

Middle school students continue to eat their lunches in their classrooms and spend most of their day in the same room with the same pod of students, Prairie Winds Middle School Assistant Principal Aaron Hyer said. They are taking more stretch breaks — in the classroom and outside when the weather permits.

All staff will have received an opportunity to get a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March or early April, Hogen said.

COVID-19 tests are now being offered to all staff twice a month at each school. Students are being encouraged to get tested every other week by going to the former Gander Mountain site or by ordering a mail-in test kit being provided free by the state.

Compliance enforcement

Still, not every student feels safe being back in school. East High School junior Emma Brewer shared concerns during Monday's School Board meeting. She said some students aren't social distancing between passing times, desks aren't always disinfected between classes, the plexiglass barriers get bumped over and she eats lunch in her car because the cafeteria feels too crowded.

And many students and sometimes even teachers aren't wearing masks properly, Brewer said she's observed.

"Teachers have ultimately given up and don't say anything about not wearing masks anymore because nobody listens," she said.

But principals say staff are working hard to enforce the safety measures and the vast majority of students are following them.

"Staff is reteaching expectations and addressing issues immediately if needed," said Dakota Meadows Middle School Principal Carmen Strahan.

"Overall, I have been extremely impressed with the students' masking," Blasing said. "It is much better than what I see out in the community."

Dahline and Hyer acknowledged some re-teaching has been needed, but echoed that students are following guidelines better than the community at large.

"There are definitely times we need to remind students but they are doing a great job," Hyer said.

Transition requests

As the schools transitioned, some students also requested to transition to or from remote learning. Most of the schools were able to accommodate all requests.

At West High School, there is not enough space for all the remote learners who now want to return. Fifty West students asked to come back while 20 moved back to learning from home.

Some classes were able to be moved to larger spaces. Blasing said that created the opportunity for more students to return, but they could not find enough space to fulfill all requests at this time.

"We have to stay in compliance with social distancing in the classrooms," Blasing said, "and some of our classrooms do not have the space to accommodate the number of students requesting in-person learning."

The 3 foot rule could be lifted and all students who want to return could do so if community COVID-19 rates drop below 10 cases per 100,000 residents.

Spring hopes

Principals are hopeful their schools will be able to stay in the nearly full time learning model through the rest of the school year.

The high schools also are making plans for prom and other spring events — with some safety modifications.

Those events and the continuation of in-person learning will depend on coronavirus case rates remaining low in the schools and in the community.

"We are asking the community to do their part to give our students the school experiences they deserve," Blasing said. "Please mask up, keep social distancing, and get the vaccine when you are able to do so."