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'Please believe we're listening to you': Rochester School Board takes questions about return to classroom

Over 400 questions submitted prior to Thursday's meeting.

Rochester Public Schools RPS logo
Rochester Public Schools

Officials with Rochester Public Schools addressed questions from the public Thursday evening during a virtual town hall meeting, elaborating on topics such as when secondary students will be able to return to the classroom.

The meeting arose as more and more parents were becoming frustrated at what they saw as a lack of movement from the district in its efforts to get students back in the door.

"We understand how hard this is — for our students, for our families, for our teachers, and for our staff," said School Board Vice Chairwoman Cathy Nathan.

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Nathan, along with Chairwoman Jean Marvin and Superintendent Michael Muñoz, addressed a variety of topics, including mental health issues among students, the timeline for getting teachers vaccinated, and the district's plans for summer school. The meeting will be posted on the district's YouTube Channel.
One of the more common questions the district received was regarding when secondary students will be able to return to in-person learning. According to Nathan, that essentially boils down to the local area's infection rate.

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Per guidelines from the state, school districts are recommended to keep their middle and high school students in distance learning if the area's 14-day infection rate is at 50 or more. Olmsted County's 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents was 58.73 as of Jan. 5.

The district has begun the effort of returning elementary students to hybrid learning because of an executive order from Gov. Tim Walz. Per that order, schools are allowed to return elementary students to the classroom regardless of the community spread of the virus. Nathan referenced information from Olmsted County Public Health, saying younger students are less prone to spreading the virus.

"There's a cut-off age of around 10 to 15 years old," she said. "If you're under that age, you transmit the virus less, and if you're over that age, you transmit the virus more. And those studies are supported by the CDC and the World Health Organization."

The board also addressed the question of whether Rochester is lagging behind other districts. While some school districts in Southeast Minnesota, such as Byron, have been able to return their secondary students to a hybrid model or even in-person, that's not the case across the board.

According to Thursday's presentation, the 14 school districts in the state bigger than RPS or in its peer group for student population nearly all have their secondary students in distance learning.

The officials weren't able to address all the questions they received in the one-hour presentation. Nathan said they received 427 questions that were submitted prior to the meeting. The district's staff and School Board separated those into as many as 90 different categories. The district will be releasing a Q&A file to address the rest of the questions that weren't covered in the meeting.

Nathan said they will also hold more such meetings in the future.

Marvin commented on the massive spike in communication from the public the School Board has received in recent months. She said it used to be that the School Board would receive around four comments a month. That has since changed.

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"We're getting hundreds of emails now — and phone calls," she said. "So, we're listening .... Please believe we're listening to you."


What happened: Officials with Rochester Public Schools answered questions from the public regarding its process for returning students to school.

Why is it important: Distance learning has taken a toll on students and parents throughout the country. Many are advocating for a return to school as a way to avoid loss of academic progress, among other concerns.

What's next: The School Board will provide an update during its Jan. 19 meeting about the plan to return secondary students to school.


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Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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