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Inside the classroom during COVID-19

As Minnesota waits for the governor to announce a plan for schools, one district shows what in-person learning could look like this fall.

RICHFIELD, Minn. — A huge decision looms. Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz is expected to announce a plan for Minnesota schools this fall. In the meantime districts are preparing for several possible scenarios, including in-person learning.

Richfield Public Schools is already doing that through its three-week summer school program at Richfield Dual Language School.

"We want to make sure that we are acting as though COVID is present in our building even if it's not," Superintendent Steven Unowsky said. "It starts on our buses with transportation. We can fit very few students on our bus. They're sitting diagonally opposite each other and skipping a row between students."

It also starts with parents assessing their kids health.

"We do have parents asked to fill out a survey - and they don't have to turn it in - each day before they send their student to school, including temperature, runny nose, sore throat and any of the other possible symptoms," Unowsky said.

There is a designated room for students who aren't feeling well but have already entered the building. They may wait there until their parent or guardian can pick them up from school.

Throughout the rest of the building, there are several more signs of change.

"You'll notice stickers and arrows on our floors," Unowsky said. "Stickers are every six feet with arrows pointing one direction on each side of the hallways."

Every room has a set of cleaning materials and hand sanitizer.

"Our custodial and building and grounds team are doing additional cleaning to make sure that our surfaces and entire location is safe," Unowsky said.

The cafeteria is empty.

"Food is actually brought to students' classrooms before they arrive for breakfast and so it's sitting on their desk waiting for them," the superintendent said.

Desks are positioned at least six feet apart, which means there is less space in the classroom. Unowsky says 13 classrooms are used for summer school, with only five to nine students in each one.

"Right now, summer school is not a financially stable model," he said. "We will run our summer school at a loss. We will take a budget hit."

The district only offered in-person learning to its elementary summer school students. Middle and high schoolers are learning solely online. However, elementary students could have opted for that, too.

"We allowed our parents to choose," Unowsky said. "We also allowed our teachers to choose."

Wednesday morning at the school, teachers wore masks. Some students did too. That afternoon, Walz announced masks would be required for almost everyone five and up effective Saturday.

"I think it goes both ways," Unowsky said. "It's hard as an adult. I'm squirmy in my mask. I've had to adjust my mask during this conversation multiple times. In terms of our students, they learn. They're learning that they need to space with their arms out and so we've created an invisible box around each kid and they're practicing."

Unowsky said from social distancing to curriculum, every component of school must be deliberately taught.

"While we're very proud of what we did on eight days notice in March and April, we believe families will be very impressed with the improvements that we have done to really plan the best model for our fall instruction regardless of what we do. In person, distance, or hybrid."

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