For the last few months, the Brainerd School District has undertaken something of a transformation act, re-equipping staff, facilities and students to achieve some kind of normalcy during a pandemic of generational proportions.
And, now that the 2020-21 school year is officially underway, the Brainerd School Board heard a series of updates from department heads on the status of ISD 181 during a time of unprecedented crisis.
“It was so much fun to have the children and the staff back together again, teaching and learning and providing high quality instruction. After six months I don’t think anybody realized just how much we missed one another and seeing the kids,” Superintendent Laine Larson said at the opening of the presentations. “Tonight is a recap of the week of all the good stuff that happened, but also just to make you aware of some of the things that are challenges and that we feel that could be challenges for us moving forward.”
The overarching theme of the discussion revolved around the dedication of district staff to meet unprecedented challenges, but also an acknowledgement the district may not be equipped to handle the hybrid model long-term if staffing shortages aren’t addressed and vendor orders continue to be delayed, as well as troubling budgetary concerns once Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act monies and other funding sources run out.
In addition, staffers noted enrollment is further complicated by the dynamic nature of the pandemic, where families are opting to take their children out of in-person learning, or putting them back in school, and the district has to adjust to significant fluctuations in that regard. The hybrid model often requires substitutes or specialized paraprofessionals to supervise and provide support, department heads noted, and it’s been an uphill battle to fill these roles.
Tim Murtha, the director of teaching and learning, noted overhauling the district for hybrid learning has been something of a bumpy road and many challenges lie ahead, but the district and the community at large is more than capable of meeting them.
“Clearly, not everything that occurred in the first four days was shiny, policy perfect,” Murtha said. “We ran into some bumps, we had some challenges, and they’re not going to go away anytime soon, but we’ve made tremendous progress on them. We do not have a challenge in front of us that we cannot solve. At this time, we have full faith that we can do that.”
“Not every deployment was a 100% success, but overall it was truly impressive to see — in the compressed amount of time that we have from the end of July to Sept. 8 — the ground that we covered,” Murtha added. “Anytime we start something that's truly unknown, it’s risk, and that entrepreneurial spirit is absolutely essential to take risk. And what we’re able to do was put it out there, and hope that the plan would fly. Honestly, I did not know if it would, but it did.”
Multiple department heads and administrators lauded the commendable efforts by district staffers to prepare the school district for a hybrid education model — in which many students will learn virtually from home, while many others will have to follow strict health mandate guidelines in district facilities. Staffers were praised for their hard work ethic, adaptability and problem-solving to work around COVID-19. In turn, students were praised for their patience and willingness to follow instructions like wearing masks and maintaining social distancing, even during recess on playgrounds.
However, multiple department heads — notably, Norby Klimek, director of transportation, and Sarah Porisch, director of technology, among others — pointed to significant staff shortages and employee burnout that, if unaddressed, could spell trouble for the long term. Tech support employees can pull double shifts, transportation supervisors can pitch in as bus drivers and food service employees can wrack their brains for ways to stretch food reserves, they said, but the current situation is unsustainable for the long haul if things don’t change. Already, aspects of education like after-school child supervision, lunchroom delivery services, tech support and mental health consultations are suffering as a result.
“There’s not a problem we cannot solve,” Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn observed. “But it’s having the resources to solve that problem and the time to do that.”