When schools shut down last spring due to COVID-19, Mankato area students, staff and families rallied together and demonstrated what living in a community is all about.

Emergency child care, breakfast and lunch services, and distance learning were a shared reality from the end of March through May. While not perfect, the challenges were met head on with a shared sense of commitment to students and families. The school year ended with a collective sense of “We made it!”

Yet COVID-19 is still with us. Our hopes of starting school in a traditional way have long passed. The pandemic has affected every aspect of planning for the upcoming year. We have all had to come to terms with the disappointing reality that educating our students will look really different for the foreseeable future.

Opinions vary on the best way for schools to open this fall. Some are concerned that holding in-person instruction will needlessly expose our students, faculty and staff to COVID-19. It is difficult to avoid the media reports about other states’ attempts to return to school, and the outcomes that followed.

Others have expressed a strong belief that students’ well-being requires returning to in-person learning where academic, social-emotional and mental health needs can best be supported.

The input we have received from families and the community reflect care for children and a passion for their education. There is an interconnectedness of our schools, the local economy and the greater community. We appreciate everything we have heard, and much of it has informed our planning.

The Mankato Area Public Schools’ Back to School Plan is our best attempt to address the various needs of students and families. For those who prefer distance learning, we’ve revamped our K-12 online delivery to be more user-friendly both for students and caregivers. Student engagement and regular connections with professional staff are top priorities of MAPS distance learning this year. We anticipate welcoming nearly 1,500 students back to school in this model.

Most MAPS students and families have opted for our Safe Learning Plan. This includes the potential for students to participate in distance, hybrid and in-person learning. Our plan emphasizes the health and safety of students and staff, while returning students to school buildings for academic and social emotional support.

Public health experts from Mayo Clinic Health Systems, Mankato Clinic, Blue Earth County and Nicollet County have been key partners in our planning efforts and will continue to work with us as conditions change.

When Gov. Tim Walz announced Minnesota’s school re-entry plans in July, he talked about the magic that happens in schools when students and staff connect in positive and life-changing ways.

At MAPS, we believe the governor is right on the mark. Students and staff belong together in schools. Bringing everyone back safely this year is our ultimate goal. We will accept nothing less for our students and staff, and we ask for your assistance in helping us achieve this critical mission.

You can help us by following public health guidelines: Wear a mask. Be diligent with social distancing. Avoid large crowds. Wash your hands frequently, and remain at home when you’re sick.

Thank you for your ongoing support for our students and staff. It’s fall, which means it’s time for school!

Paul Peterson is superintendent of Mankato Area Public Schools.

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