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Reopening in a pandemic: Q&A with Northfield Superintendent Matt Hillmann

Dr. Matt Hillmann is the Superintendent of Northfield Public Schools. The school district’s reopening plan has largely been in his hands since Minnesota Governor Tim Walz announced that there will be no statewide school reopening policy, but rather policies based on rates of COVID-19 within each county. The Carletonian sat down with Dr. Hillmann to discuss how the future of Carleton and Northfield’s schools are intertwined.

Ellie Zimmerman: You just announced that there will be in-person education for elementary school students and hybrid education for middle and high school students this year, but that decision was made without a quarter of Northfield’s population, which will be arriving in the next couple of weeks. How much did you take that into consideration?

Matt Hillmann: We’ve been working with both the Minnesota Department of Health and Rice County Public Health for several weeks, thinking about a number of different options and a number of different data points. The learning model decision that we made says that if you take a look at the state of Minnesota, we are at nearly the lowest end of the learning model grid. We’re at 10.5 cases per 10,000 residents over the past 14 days through August 11th. Talking it through with our team and thinking about a number of different options, we felt confident that we were able to make that decision at this time. Even considering the fact that there are other students coming back to campus, you got to campus being at the lowest end of that range. Had we been at the higher end of that range, I think we would have had some different analysis, but believe it or not, the emails I’ve gotten today have been more about when we get under 10, when we have everybody come back to school. If we were to drop below 10 cases per 10,000 residents, there’s a number of other factors we’d have to consider before bringing our secondary students back in person every day, just because we don’t want to have to swing in and out of these different learning models.

EZ: You said [in a recent KYMN interview] that you’re fairly confident you’ll have to make some kind of change. What do you think that means?

MH: Absolutely—we don’t know yet because we still don’t think we completely understand where the virus is taking us, though we’ve had a significant decrease in cases in Rice County. My sense would be that the more likely way that we would go would be more restrictive rather than less restrictive. We have to have a lot of cases to get to hybrid for all. We have to get to that point where we are at 20 or higher [per 10,000]. 

All school districts in the state belong to something called a regional service cooperative of Minnesota. Once we get into the school year, those regional support teams activate. We have a team that’ll be looking at the data every single week. If there was enough of a change where we have to think about a learning model shift, either more restrictive or less restrictive, we’ll work with the regional support team. Let’s say that there is an increase in cases, to the point where it even potentially could affect our learning model. They’re going to do a deep dive into the data and say, okay, we see an increase in cases, the increase in cases are specific to this particular part of town. Maybe it’s a business. Maybe it is one of the colleges where the increases come from. If they get that and they feel convinced that it is contained to that area, they’ve said they may not make us change our learning model. So we’ll be getting some really significant support from the state Department of Health as we move forward, trying to take all of those things into consideration.

EZ: Interesting. So it’s not just the flat Rice County number. You can get more localized than that.

MH: Correct. 

EZ: So taking all that into consideration, being super honest with me, do you see this plan working? Do you see this as sustainable for the year or the semester at least?

MH: I think it’s hard to speculate because right now, we have seen in Rice County that the cases have flattened out over the last several months. But again, we’re not in charge of the numbers. The virus is in charge of the numbers. So if people do follow the protocols, I think that there’s a fairly good chance that we could be sustainable for a period of time. When the weather changes and more people are inside, that’s a part that we’ll have to work through at that point. For now, I think as we’ve talked with our public health experts, we feel that this is a sustainable way to start, but we don’t know. Nobody can say for sure that they know, so we’re making the best decisions that we can with the data that we have at the time. We’ve told people we have to be prepared to shift and adjust. If people want their kids back in school, we know that they have to follow those precautions and if they follow those precautions, we think that that’s very helpful. We see other states who have had some struggles with the return to school. Many of those states did not have a statewide face covering mandate. Many of those states did not have the length of the stay-at-home order that we have had here in Minnesota. So we’re hopeful that the public policy initiatives that have been different here than other locations give us the best chance for success.

EZ: You said some of it depends on how much the parents want their kids back in school and how much the teachers want to return to school. What have you been hearing from the community on that front?

MH: One of the things that we’re required to do in the Stay Safe Minnesota plan is to offer a totally online option for families. As of today, right now [August 17], we have 384 of our roughly 4,000 students who are opting for the all-the-time online program and we have roughly 40 of our 600 employees who have requested some kind of remote work. 

EZ: And that was granted to anyone who requested it?

MH: We are still working through that. There’s a prioritization process. There are some folks who meet the CDC criteria for increased risk that we’ll prioritize. Our goal is to work with as many people as possible. We think we’re going to be able to help most people, but there are some circumstances where we may not be able to offer remote work. In that case, we would work with people to grant them a leave of absence should they need to. It’s our last resort. We hope not to do that. It’s looking like we have quite a few people who are not interested in all-the-time online and we’re trying to match those two pieces up. Our goal would be to provide as many people with meaningful remote work as possible. 

EZ: Do you think that this is going to change the future of K-12 education forever, or do you think that this is just a placeholder until we can go back to normal?

MH: Well, I really hope it does change K-12 education because K-12 education could use some change. I don’t think that that answer is completely clear right now. First of all, we know that what we have done in public education has worked well for lots of students, but we also know that there are many students who it has not worked for, especially when we look at the substantial differences in achievement for our students of color in Minnesota. Going back to normal and those same kinds of outcomes is something that no school leaders want to happen. We want to be back to something better. When you have a major disruption like this pandemic, it is going to challenge systems. It’s going to make us think differently. While we are trying to manage the crisis, we are also looking at the ways that we can leverage what we’re learning during this process to create a better system coming out of it. 

And I think that people will initially probably have a desire to get back to what they perceive to have been normal. But we also know that we have learned a lot of things during this. Dire circumstances can create substantial creativity.

There were students who were really struggling in the in-person environment and who thrived in the online environment. We know that there were some students who would really benefit from having access to a more “on my own time” kind of approach. I see some of the remote learning continuing after the pandemic is over in a very strategic and thoughtful way, so that we can leverage both the things that are great about being on a school campus with the needs of each child of what might work best for them. 

We even look at it as the possibility of how we can expand the coursework that we offer. I think there’s another group of kids who would say, I’d love to take this health careers course that you can get through this particular content provider. I know it’s not reasonable for the school district to be able to offer that as a regular course, but if I could have access to that, I think that that is something that would be very beneficial to our students.

EZ: What keeps you up at night? 

MH: It depends on the day. Since it’s such a novel and moving target, the unknown is what keeps me up the most. I also have a great concern about making sure that we don’t lose our important anti-racism work as we deal with the crisis of the pandemic. We’re trying to make sure that we don’t allow the urgent to crowd out the important. Some of those real improvements that we’ve made over the last few years, as we are responding to an emergency, we are also trying not to lose some of the improvements that we have worked to develop. 

Those are struggles for all school districts in Minnesota. Right now, they have a substantial budget deficit at the state level. We get most of our funding from the state, and we are just not confident the state is going to be able to provide any kind of increase over the next several years because of the economic setbacks.

We know there are so many things that are converging at the same time that concern us. We care very deeply about public education. We think it is the foundation of a democratic republic and want to make sure that we are able to provide that essential service, while also making sure that we are protecting public health. That’s a long answer for that. I’m worrying a lot.

EZ: Yeah. I can imagine you have one of the hardest jobs out there right now. 

MH: But we are blessed to lead. I do maintain that, in the aftermath of COVID, public schools demonstrated that they were one of the most effective units of government, at least in Minnesota.

We learned on a Sunday that we had to shift. By Wednesday we were offering childcare for Tier One [essential] workers. We were feeding people every day through our meal programs, and we shifted to completely online. Of course, our online experience could be much improved over what it was last spring, but we had some really positive feedback from our community about how we were able to make that shift fairly effectively considering there was zero time to plan and that it was a true emergency. I think that a lot of Minnesota public schools can be very proud that we provided a lot of effective services, what families needed the most. And that’s what we want. We want to provide that essential public service for people and educate our next round of people so that as they grow up they are prepared to engage in this really important work in a democratic society.

EZ: What message do you have for Carleton students who are coming back soon?

MH: I wish everyone an excellent trimester and I hope people are able to take advantage of the world-class college education that Carleton offers. I hope that people at Carleton will dig in because this is not the last huge problem that’s going to be in front of us, that we’re going to have to solve.

And then of course, I just really strongly encourage and hope that our Carleton friends will take those appropriate precautions and make sure that they are wearing face coverings, that they’re washing their hands, that they’re staying home if they don’t feel well.

I recently saw this thing that the Vassar College president put out which was just fabulous. It was about how the “we” right now is much more important than the “me” and that collectively working together we can solve these kinds of problems moving forward.

I’ve always looked at our Carleton students as a huge asset to our community and very responsible. I see no change in that. In fact, just knowing the student body, I’m sure that they’ll even be more responsible than normal, making sure they contribute to public health in a positive way.

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