School Year Begins with Major Changes


Unlike previous school years where planning is done weeks, if not months, before students cross the threshold of the building, educators and administrators are still finalizing details for this academic year.

Blame the uncertainty on the novel coronavirus and the way it has changed our collective lives. Normally by now, school schedules would have been finalized, bus routes would have been established, and extracurricular and sports activities would have been determined.

For students and families in the Band-operated schools, one big change is that the school year will begin on Sept. 16 — more than a week later than it was supposed to start. The option was proposed by the Bureau of Indian Education, and it’s one that administrators for Mille Lacs Band schools determined was best for all involved.

"The later start date will allow us to work out some of the kinks we might have with using new technology," said Lehtitia Weiss, Principal of grades K-5 at Nay Ah Shing. "We have ordered cameras so teachers can use a live feed or upload lessons for students who are doing distance learning."

As of mid-August, there were 95 families enrolled in Nay Ah Shing and Pine Grove Academy. The majority of families have selected the hybrid model — where students will go to the school building four days a week — and others have opted remote learning. A few families were unsure about what they would do.

To help determine what option families wanted, the school staff contacted each family. They have also spent time answering questions and to sharing the most recent steps the schools have been taking to keep students safe.

Based on feedback gathered by administrators, families have said they feel confident in the safety measures that have been put in place for the returning students.

"Families have wanted to talk about everything we’re doing, and we’re giving them the best information we have available right now," said Byron Ninham, the Nay Ah Shing Assistant Principal for grades 6 through 12.

But as everyone knows, that information changes daily based on the number of new cases of coronavirus. Band schools are relying on the regional data rather than the county data since the number of new cases in the county doesn’t accurately reflect the areas where the schools are located.

Families who opt for distance learning will continue to get school meals for their children and can get help with hot spots or internet services to ensure success for their learners.

"We’ve fine-tuned what we’re doing for distance learning because we had more time to plan for it compared to last spring," said Lehtitia. "But, we are reminding parents that it’s fluid and depends on what happens in the community. "

Kindergarten Round-up will be held on September 3, and the open house for Nay Ah Shing Abinoojiiyag and Secondary in District I will be September 10. The open house for Pine Grove Learning Center will be September 14.

"Every student will have devices this year. Last year it was two students to one device. Students in kindergarten through second grades will have iPads, and students in grades 3-12 will have Chromebooks," she added.

Students who attend school in the building will be expected to maintain a six-foot distance from others, Byron said. Classroom interaction will be limited, too, to help prevent COVID-19 from spreading.

"We’re really focusing on keeping students safe," he said. "We’ve had to fine-tune or eliminate our out-of-school programming. Only students who are here for school can participate."

Some of the expectations that students should be prepared for are wearing masks and having their temperatures taken daily — on the bus or when they arrive at school. The school has touchless sinks and will distribute water bottles rather than use the fountains. Lunch time will look different too, with fewer students eating together. The cleaning efforts will be increased, too.

"There will be smaller class sizes, and that means we’re hiring more teachers. We’re not sure yet about extra bus routes," Lehtitia said.

Leaders have been meeting frequently to put plans in place to ensure that the students are safe and continue to receive a sound education.

"We’re really fortunate we have technology options like Google classroom,” Byron said, adding with a chuckle that because distance learning is in place, it could mean the end of snow days.

"We’re also fortunate to have such committed staff who want to be in classrooms and working with students," said Byron. "We’re doing our best to be safe for our students, our families, and our staff."