Distance learning looms as cases rise

Testing, quarantine, vaccination plans set


Kaia Myers

Former School Board chair Mary Tomback suggests alternate schedule options for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 school years during the school board meeting Jan. 27, 2020 in C350. Tomback and other School Board members recently met to discuss potential options for distance learning as COVID-19 rates rise.

Elena Ortiz-Fishman

Due to the drastic increase in student and staff absences following winter break, Superintendent Astein Osei said distance learning has become a potential option. Although, for now Osei said the next steps will be implementing mitigation strategies such as increased pay rates for subs and canceling faculty meetings. 

“The balancing act for me, personally, at a time in which there’s so much focus on adults’ needs, is trying to always keep students at the center of decisions that we’re making,” Osei said. “School districts all across the state are shutting down — not because the quality of education is poor, but they’re shutting down because they don’t have enough staff to safely bring students to school”

During the week of Jan. 3 – 7, there was a total of 287 staff absences — if the rates of faculty members getting COVID-19 go up, Osei said there will be a potential move to distance learning. Park will continue to implement in person as long as they are able to staff schools and provide transportation, according to Osei. 

With many teachers being out of the building, freshman Libi Ackerman said it has impacted her learning negatively. 

“I do notice that the classes are a lot more disruptive and it doesn’t feel like anyone’s actually learning in them,” Ackerman said. “I know that subs are trying the hardest they can but it’s kind of hard to fill in the spot of a teacher in such short notice about a subject that’s really serious.” 

To combat the rising cases, BD Veritor antigen rapid tests — app-enabled swab tests for COVID-19 — will be available at certain sites for students and staff, as well as Vault tests will be available for staff beginning in Feb. Additionally, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OFSHA) now requires all Park staff to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, or alternately, get tested weekly. 

For junior Sigalit Cassuto, distance learning is an option that can pose many social challenges and inhibit opportunities for college.   

“I don’t think we should go back to distance because there’s a different level that we make relationships with our teachers. It was very distant and robotic so (we) didn’t have connections,” Cassuto said. “As an 11th grader, it’s just worrisome to go back to distance and not be able to prepare for college, and have the same level of rigorous courses.” 

According to Ackerman, it’s important to weigh in the advantages and disadvantages that come with going online, as well as finding other methods like masking and testing. 

“I really understand both sides of the argument — people wanting to go online because of safety reasons and people not wanting to go online because of logistics with the school district,” Ackerman said. “Personally, I feel like I want to see if there’s other ways to stay safe.”

Osei said it’s important to consider that online learning won’t strictly fix the problems going on now — quality of instruction can still be inhibited if teachers are sick, regardless if they are at school or not. 

“I just don’t want people looking all online to be some sort of magic bullet that is going to magically solve what we’re experiencing right now,” Osei said. “I don’t have any evidence to believe that that will be the case, especially if we don’t change our behavior. It’s not that I’m suggesting we won’t at some point have to go to online learning, I want us to go into that with our eyes wide open.”

Once the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) approves the five day shortened quarantine period, Park will be moving to that plan in accordance with CDC guidelines. Although School Board chair Mary Tomback acknowledges the risks of this choice, she said it’s still important that those in close contact who display symptoms remain at home while also enforcing masking.  

“I just want people to understand that we are going to be taking some risks if we move to a five day quarantine period,” Tomback said. “To move to the quarantine period is going to necessitate continued mask compliance.” 

Moving forward, Osei said learning through Schoology platforms will be prioritized for students who are quarantined. Any next steps regarding distance learning will be communicated with, at minimum, a 24 hour notice to parents, staff and students.