Community prepares
to go back to school


Students, parents weigh in on decision to return to in-person learning

By Ellarry Prentice | Staff writer

    SAUK RAPIDS – As Sauk Rapids-Rice schools prepare to welcome pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students back for in-person learning, the district is readying its staff and school bus drivers.
Pre-kindergarten through grade 5 students will return to full-time in-person learning Tuesday, Jan. 19. Grades 6-12 will return, temporarily, to a hybrid learning model – a rotation between classes in the school buildings and online classes off campus – starting Tuesday, Jan. 19, as they transition, for the first time this school year, to full-time in-person learning Monday, Feb. 1.
Sauk Rapids-Rice students have been learning remotely district-wide since November. The school board’s Jan. 7 decision to switch to in-person learning followed a substantial decrease in COVID-19 cases in Benton County and a significant decrease in COVID-19-related absences among staff and students.
School board members, along with administrators, agreed they want students in the classroom again.
“It’s best to get our kids back,” Superintendent Bradley Bergstrom said.
Students and parents are also preparing for the learning model transition.
“I definitely have mixed feelings about going back to school,” said Bailee Bonebright, a senior at Sauk Rapids-Rice High School.
Bonebright is excited to be back in the high school building with her friends and peers. She also looks forward to a closer connection with sports and activities again.
Still, the coronavirus pandemic makes the school experience challenging, Bonebright noted.
“It’s a little sad with all of the rules and regulations we now have due to COVID-19,” she said.
Those rules include wearing a mask even while playing sports.
Nonetheless, Bonebright feels the school board made the right choice.
“I still agree with the decision to reopen schools,” she said. “I have come to the conclusion that I personally learn better when we are learning in-person rather than distance.”
Bonebright explained that COVID-19 has, inadvertently, demonstrated an important lesson.     “The online (learning) experience has taught us all to not take for granted all of the fun events and milestones we have, not only in school but in life,” she said.
Senior Eli Moilanen has some trepidation about the shift to in-person learning, as students and staff continue to be at risk of contracting COVID-19, including a possible new variant of the virus.
“I’m not really looking forward to going back to school because at home we have more freedom,” Moilanen said. “Also, I don’t believe we should even go hybrid with the numbers that we have.”
Senior Ashley Konietzko is excited to be back in the school buildings. She said she looks forward to being able to dress up for her day instead of wearing sweatpants or leggings and a sweatshirt at home.
“I don’t normally get to wear nicer clothes because, well, I’m not going out as much right now,” she said.
Konietzko is excited to see her friends, classmates and teachers in person. With most events still on pause, she said that is about the only thing she has to look forward to.
“I get to see my friends in person instead of on screen, and I feel like I learn better in person than on Zoom because I’m forced to focus more,” she said.
Learning from home, with siblings and other distractions, has been challenging for Konietzko.
“Being at school is a much better learning environment for me, and I retain more information than I do over Zoom,” she said.
While Konietzko believes resuming in-person learning is a step in the right direction, she is nervous about what the rest of the year will look like for the senior class.
“I really hope that vaccines work and COVID-19 dies down by spring because I would love to have a prom and a graduation,” she said. “It sucks to work so hard for this long to just go to school and not get to experience the fun parts of my senior year.”
Konietzko’s prom dress, which she was not able to wear last spring due to COVID-19, still hangs in her closet.
“I keep wondering if I’ll even get to wear it at all,” she said.
Konietzko’s pandemic sentiment echoed Bonebright’s.
“Whatever ends up happening with COVID-19 in the next couple of months, I think a big lesson that the class of 2021 has learned is to not take anything for granted,” she said.
As of Jan. 12, Benton County had 78 active COVID-19 cases and a daily case count of nine. The school district had eight active student cases and three active employee cases. COVID-19-related absences, the district’s greatest source of concern, were 57 among students and 19 among employees, down significantly from a couple months ago. Since the switch to district-wide distance learning, however, school officials said there has been underreporting of COVID-19-related absences.
Marsha Riendeau, mom of a Sauk Rapids-Rice senior and freshman, agrees with the school board’s decision to return to in-person learning. She feels the significant drop in cases warrants a return to the buildings.
“I’m more concerned with keeping them home,” said Riendeau, who explained that her children struggled to adjust to distance learning. “I think they learn better at school.”
Riendeau noted that distance learning has impacted students’ mental health. Since the pandemic, her children have had significantly less social interaction and have had a hard time asking teachers questions through a screen, she said.
“I think they need structure,” Riendeau said. “They need to be with people their own age. Just be in a different environment than home.”
One distance-learning improvement Riendeau appreciates is that students are now learning at scheduled times versus at their leisure when the learning model was first implemented.
“They won’t do their work without (a schedule),” she said.
Another distance-learning challenge for the Riendeau family is having three people doing different work under the same roof. Riendeau is also working from home.
Riendeau knows it will take time to adjust to in-person learning, especially for secondary students, who are now accustomed to distance learning, having done it either full- or part-time all school year.
One of the challenges for secondary students, Riendeau said, will be navigating a new set of classrooms with the trimester change.
“It’s like starting the first day all over again because they’ve been out of school so long,” she said.
Megan Rogholt said her kids have done well academically as distance learners, though they have missed the social aspect of attending in-person. Rogholt is the mom of a sophomore and a sixth-grade student.
“They’ve missed seeing their friends and that personal interaction,” she said.
Both Megan and her husband, Phil, have been able to work from home, which has been beneficial for their children, but she recognizes that arrangement is not possible for many families.
Rogholt supports the less-restrictive learning model, but as she prepares for her daughter and son to walk back in the school buildings, she will remain vigilant.
“I’m always going to be concerned about my children’s health,” she said.
She has faith school leaders will do the same.
“I trust the district, and I trust they’re making the best decision for our kids,” Rogholt said. “I trust they’re going to continue looking at those (COVID-19 case) numbers.”
Rogholt acknowledged that having her children home, where she knows they are safe, has placated worry, but she is willing to send them to the school buildings.
“I want them to have that social experience too,” she said.
One of Rogholt’s concerns about in-person learning models is potential for staffing shortages due to COVID-19-related absences. During distance learning, their teachers have been consistent, but she worries that could change with another spike in absences. She said the family will closely monitor the district’s COVID-19 data and would revert to distance learning if their children’s health is in jeopardy.
Kindergarten through grade 12 families who are not comfortable with in-person learning may continue to do distance learning through the current school year. The district calls this option Family Choice.