ROSEAU, Minn. – On a sunny Thursday in mid-July, a small crowd gathered in front of the Roseau Community School to mark the ceremonial groundbreaking of a $40 million-plus school construction project voters passed with more than 74% approval during a May 12 referendum.

A combination of 65,000 square feet of new construction and 44,000 square feet of remodeling, the project is set to be completed in the fall of 2022, and the recent midday groundbreaking was a way of saying thanks to the residents of this northwest Minnesota school district for their support, Superintendent Tom Jerome said.

The grassroots effort was the culmination of more than two years of planning, discussing and debating “to meet the needs of our students, and the students of today and the students of tomorrow,” Jerome said.

During the middle of a pandemic, no less.

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“Our community has proven to be very resilient throughout the pandemic and determined to continue to look forward,” he said.

While the timetable for the Roseau school expansion is set and construction began July 20, the shape of the upcoming school year remained a work in progress as of late July as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to evolve.

As of this writing, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz has told Jerome and other public school administrators in the state to prepare for three scenarios: Resumption of traditional in-school classes, a hybrid mix of in-person and distance learning – which could look very different depending on the school and community and the age of the students – and a return to the distance learning that began in March as the pandemic hit and threw everyone's lives into a tailspin.

“We're going to continue to build on what we did with distance learning and try to improve,” if that's the direction the school year takes, Jerome said. “We've surveyed our families and asked for feedback on what worked and what didn't work and we want to build on that.”

A decision from Walz's office is expected Thursday, July 30, but the potential shape of the coming school year is “incredibly fluid,” Jerome said.

“I think one of the really challenging things is that we're all acutely aware of the fact that whatever does come down the pipeline could change for us again,” he said. “But we're all yearning, starving to return to some form of normalcy and balancing that with the health concern. What we do know is our education is most successful when our students are in the classroom. Generally speaking, as a whole, our mental health is in a much better position when our kids are back in our hallways socializing with their classmates, interacting with their teachers.

“But it's a real balancing act right now,” Jerome said. “We want our kids back in the building and we want our staff back in the building in the safest way possible. We can't be reckless about this.”

According to a recent informal survey by the Department of Education, 64% of Minnesota residents were comfortable with their children returning to school.

"There's a real tug of war going on in terms of this desire to return to normalcy," Jerome said. "And at the same time, to ensure the safest environment we can, not only for our students but for the number of adults in our building.”

As of mid-July, questions far outnumbered answers, Jerome said.

“What I do know is that we are focused, we are waiting for our direction, and we're going to do the very best we can to meet the needs of our students,” he said. “And that's pretty general right now, but it's impossible to be anything more than that.”

Looking back on the distance-learning experience, Jerome said it “really demonstrated how much our community and our students value the traditional educational system.”

“Our educational system is not built on isolation or separation or distance,” he said. “Not at the K-12 or the preschool through K-12 level. That distance provided us a lot of challenges, and we did the very best that we could working together with our families, but there is no doubt that distance learning impacted all of us.”

Traditional education is built on personal connections distance learning can't provide. Whatever direction education takes for the coming school year, Jerome said the school district will be ready.

“Not a single person in this building went to school to be a teacher to teach distance learning – not one of them,” he said. “We did the very best we could and we provided a great deal of service in a system that not one single teacher of ours was ever trained for, educated for, prepared for and not a system that one of our teachers ever signed up for.

“And conversely, the same thing goes for our students.”