School Board prioritizes safety in new learning model decision


Photo by Olivia Bystrom

The school board, as well as student council leaders, met via zoom on Nov. 5. to make the distance learning decision. After a long discussion, the board decided that distance learning will take effect starting Nov. 16.

Olivia Bystrom, Broadcast Editor-in-Chief

Much like last year, the in-person learning model must come to an end. With Washington County’s rapidly rising cases of Covid-19, and over 6,000 confirmed cases in total and climbing, the safety of schools in the district has become a cause for concern. On Oct. 29, the school board planned to host an emergency meeting to discuss the decision of whether or not to switch to a distance learning model. However, that meeting was postponed and held on Nov. 5. 

The Minnesota Department of Health has a list of recommendations and requirements for public school’s safety measures during Covid-19, which calls for changing learning models when a school’s community reaches a certain number of coronavirus cases. Considering the recent spike in cases within the state as well as the surrounding district community, the school board had reasonable cause to cancel in-person learning. However, there were unique factors to be taken into consideration, such as the number of cases that are specific to prison inmates at the Stillwater Correctional Facility. 

“It’s one of the reasons why we use multiple data points now. Not just that county rate, because our county rate would include the prison facility. I think people understood that the prison is kind of a self contained facility. So therefore, if things are happening inside there that don’t necessarily impact us out in our more specific community, people want to be able to take that into consideration too,” Principal Robert Bach explained.

For parents and students within the community alike, the idea of the decision stirred up controversy, especially amongst winter athletes and their families. A petition has been shared around recently, calling for the school board to Save Winter Sports. The petition has been signed by over 2,500 people in support of continuing winter sports like hockey and nordic if the school board chose to switch to distance learning. 

It should be OUR choice as parents to take the risk to send them to sports. Limit the attendance at games, matches or meets, do what you need to do, but this is overreaching,” the petition, created by John Bernier stated.

After considering all of the data, the school board discussed the decision. It was clearly a difficult decision to agree on, with members having a wide variety of opinions about what should be done. Director Tina Riehle voted against the the decision to transition to distance learning, expressing concern surrounding the state’s current Covid-19 school policies.

“I wish they would modify or take that into account or maybe give better advice. I’m frustrated that they backed away from this. So I can’t support this right now either. I can’t support going into this model and not having an end time. I am afraid of our kids not being able to be back in and then it taking too long to get back in,” Riehle explained. 

…I want you to be able to have all of the social and emotional kinds of things too. Things like being able to participate in activities and athletics, that’s part of what makes the high school experience for a lot of students…”

— Principle Robert Bach

Conversely, other members of the board like Director Liz Weisberg argued in favor of the distance learning model. Weisberg expressed concern for families and community members in her stance on the matter.

In her statement, she said, “Just because our children might not be getting it, doesn’t mean they’re not spreading it to somebody else who might be really vulnerable.”

“If I’m a family who’s taking it very seriously, wearing masks all the time socially distancing, and I send my child thinking they’re safe and they’re sitting next to somebody who isn’t taking those precautions on the weekends and is doing a lot of other things; that’s endangering my child, and then endangering my family, my grandparents, whoever else I come in contact with,” Weisberg added.

Caught in the middle, board member Jennifer Pelletier expressed frustration at having to make such a challenging decision. While she ultimately voted in favor of the plan, she saw the issue from both perspectives. In her discussion, she expressed concern for how the decision will impact single parent households as well as the consequences it may have on student’s mental health.

“I would love to have more critical conversations with actually the people making these decisions at the state level on how it is impacting our schools and our families because mental health does play into this, it simply does,” Pelletier explained. “It is absolutely crushing me mentally to know that there are families that are paycheck to paycheck, and they will have to deal with this and try to teach their kids and work. So for me, this is the most excruciating thing I have ever had to experience, so I’m not satisfied with the decision I’m going to make. I’m going to support this, but I’m not satisfied with it,” she continued.

Following the discussion at the board meeting, the board came to the final decision. The discussion concluded with a 5:2 vote in favor of distance learning, and the new model is set to go into effect starting Nov. 16. Sports and activities will continue as originally scheduled until further notice. The decision may be a hard transition for some students to adjust to, but senior Maggie Spain has faith that it will turn out okay. 

I only have one class at SAHS, but I have been doing well with my off days during hybrid. I think it definitely depends on each teacher for how students will succeed for online learning and not so much the school,” senior Maggie Spain explained.

Since the decision was made, district staff have been working diligently to prepare and accommodate students for the new learning model. Principal Bach said he has spent all summer working towards making the school year as safe and effective as possible for students, and he continues to work toward that goal as the year progresses. 

“My hope is that you are able to have a learning experience where you continue to learn all of the things that you should be learning, and that your learning isn’t compromised. I want you to be able to have all of the social and emotional kinds of things too. Things like being able to participate in activities and athletics, that’s part of what makes the high school experience for a lot of students. So my hope is to do things differently, that you guys are still able to figure out ways to have your needs met and have all of the different outlets that you deserve,” Bach said.