As the end of a historic school year gets closer to wrapping up, teachers and administers are beginning to reflect as well as look forward to how the COVID-19 pandemic could affect the start of the coming year as well as the future of education in general.

However, part of that is still unknown. Minnesota Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said officials have not yet determined whether school will begin the coming year at home in distance learning or in traditional classrooms.

Rochester Public Schools Superintendent Michael Muñoz said the district's staff is preparing for three possibilities. One is that students return to school like they normally would. Another is that they return to school with social distancing requirements. And the third is that students begin school in the fall at home with distance learning.

"We will be working on those plans this summer and be ready for any of the three scenarios come next fall," Muñoz said at a recent school board meeting. "We just feel that we have to have all three situations ready to go because it may be August before we hear what school's going to look like."

A classroom sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A classroom sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

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Regardless of what happens this fall, though, Ricker said the experience of distance learning will likely factor into future education.

“All of us as educators have a responsibility to reflect on what we did and what we learned and to do some things differently moving forward,” Ricker told the Post Bulletin. “We need to move forward in a parallel recovery and enrichment mindset.”

The recovery, she said, is to make up for some of the learning that wasn’t able to happen because of the pandemic. The enrichment, she said, is to look at what they learned and think about how they could do things better, even under normal conditions.

Prematurely emptied lockers sit on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
Prematurely emptied lockers sit on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

The recovery Ricker spoke about may not only be about academics, either. Muñoz has spoken about how the pandemic has created a sense of loss -- that it caused a disruption in many people's lives.

Because of that, Muñoz said even if schools do open in the fall, they are going to have to pay attention to the toll the pandemic has had on Rochester’s school communities.

“One of the things that we have been talking about is that when we come back next fall, we anticipate we’re going to have to put even more emphasis on mental wellness and mental health (for) our students and our staff,” Muñoz said.

Rochester Education Association President Dan Kuhlman said he's had to talk to teachers about maintaining a healthy balance between work and home life. With distance learning breaking some of the normal ideas about the time of day students need to be doing school, teachers found themselves working bizarre hours to meet their students where they were.

"I was talking to teachers who were logging on at seven in the morning and not logging off until seven at night," Kuhlman said. "Or, they were working on stuff during the weekends."

As difficult as the transition to distance learning in the second half of the year may have been, it forced teachers to find new and creative ways to teach and interact with students. That's where the "enrichment" that Ricker spoke of comes into play.

A stairwell sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A stairwell sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)

Instead of being a teacher in front of 30 students, the teachers held office hours where they could meet with students in small groups or even one-on-one. In many cases, it forced teachers to communicate more with the families of their students.

Suddenly, educators had to reimagine even routine, simple things from their workday. Ricker used the example of taking attendance. Whereas it used to be a simple practice, it became a way during distance learning for teachers to reach out to their students to make sure they were really engaging with their work.

Kuhlman reiterated that thought, saying the pandemic created an opportunity to renovate education in some ways. Kuhlman said he's working with the district to survey staff, students and families to find out what worked well and what didn't.

“Emergency is a really good breeder of ingenuity,” Kuhlman said. “I think this was a really excellent time to learn how to do a reset. I think there are some very good things that will come out of this.”

A classroom sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)
A classroom sits unused on Thursday, May 14, 2020, at the high school in Austin. (Traci Westcott / twestcott@postbulletin.com)