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New Rules for Back to School

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Students wearing masks depart from the bus as they head for Jefferson Elementary School in New Ulm.

NEW ULM — September is here and that means it is back-to-school time. This year might be the most anticipated school start in history.

The 2020/2021 school year is expected to be far different than any other school year due to COVID-19 concerns. The viral pandemic brought an abrupt stop to in-person classes in March. The last two months of the previous school year were conducted online.

With the restart of in-person classes this fall, students are physically returning to schools for the first time in five months. Students, staff and parents were more excited than ever to restart the school year.

Every new school year brings some changes, but none compare to this year. Schools across Minnesota and the country are re-opening under greater scrutiny due to the continuing viral pandemic.

In late July, the state established guidelines for determining whether school districts could open for in-person learning. Schools are allowed to fully re-open if positive COVID cases are under 10 per 10,000 in two weeks.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Michelle Rathmann stand behind the Jefferson Elementary front desk. The entire desk is surrounded by a plastic curtain supplied by United Commercial Upholstery (UCU). These curtains were made for all staff desks.

Initially, New Ulm area schools were at this threshold for allowing in-person education. New Ulm Public School was prepared to go forward with a hybrid model with some in-person class and some distance learning.

However, a week before classes started, the number of COVID-19 cases in the county were low enough to allow in-person learning.

New Ulm Public Schools opened Monday, August 31. Minnesota Valley Lutheran (MVL) and New Ulm Area Catholic Schools (NUACS) open later in the week. NUACS delayed its opening for two days after learning on Sunday before school was to start that a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19.

The first sign the school was back open was the long line of vehicles on Garden Street, dropping off students. The staff was waiting outside the building to direct students where to go.

Though students are allowed back in the building, mask regulations remain in place. Every student and staff member is required to wear a facemask on the buses and in the buildings. The school reported the students are being compliant with the mask policy. There are some added challenges posed by the masks.

District 88 Superintendent Jeff Bertrang said it can be difficult to know who is talking if you can’t see a person’s mouth.

“We’re going to become good at reading eyes,” Bertrang said.

On the first day, Jefferson counselors Kayla Sanderfeld and Jade Anderson wore t-shirts reading “I’m smiling under my mask and hugging you in my heart.”

The schools have scheduled mask-off- breaks throughout the day. These breaks will take place outside or in the gym if social distancing allows.

The staff is trying to maintain social distancing in the buildings. At the public schools, there is an effort to reduce the time spent in the hallways. Students are encouraged to bring backpacks into the classrooms.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Minnesota Valley Lutheran high school seniors will be dining outside while the warm weather lasts. The senior class typically has lunch outside during the warm seasons, but social it another solution for social distancing. In the cold months, seniors lunch will likely be moved to the stage area.

At Jefferson Elementary and St. Anthony’s Elementary, tape arrows have been placed on the ground to help the youngest students navigate the hallways. Red X marks are placed outside bathrooms to show kids where to stand in line to keep a social distance.

The older students understand the need to walk on the right side of the hallway, but the younger kids need help.

Lunchtime in the cafeteria has also changed. Since students are eating, mask are off. At the public school, the youngest students eat lunch in shifts in the cafeteria. The 3rd and 4th graders can eat in their classrooms. In the Middle School, three cafeteria areas were established for social distancing.

On the NUACS campus, cafeteria staff was able to accommodate social distancing by moving the dining space into the hallway. MVL has freshmen and sophomores dining in the cafeteria; juniors in the gym and seniors are dining outside while the weather allows it. Seniors will likely move to the stage space when things get warm.

The playground spaces during recess remain in use but are broken into sections. Students at Jefferson and St. Anthony are broken into small pods or by grades when on the playground. The staff makes sure students wash their hands between using the equipment.

Staff photo by Clay Schuldt Cathedral Band teacher Tom Bierer shows off his new class room, the gymnasium. The extra space in the gym allows students to play instruments while social distancing.

Classroom use has also changed. Larger rooms are being used to host different classes. At Cathedral High, band teacher Tom Bierer set up podiums in the gym for a class. Since some instruments cannot be played with masks on, the social distancing of 12 feet is required and the gym has the full space necessary.

Overall, the first few days went well. Bertrang said the first day went as well as expected.

Thirty minutes into NUACS’ first day, Superintendent John Kimec said “[it] went better than I could imagine.”

MVL Principal Tim Plath said the first couple of days went well and the students were compliant with the regulations.

“I think they and the staff are happy to be back,” Plath said. “It is nice to see their smiling faces again — or smiling eyes.”

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