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School ready for a multiple fall scenarios


June 26, 2020

Jana Peterson

Cloquet School Board members and administrators on Monday discussed the prospects of schools being open for students in the fall.

State officials told schools last week to prepare for three different scenarios in the fall, but they won't hear which one to implement until late July. And even that scenario could change, depending on local COVID-19 infection rates.

The three contingency plans follow:

1. In-person learning for all students with as much space between students as feasible during the day.

2. A hybrid model with stricter social distancing and capacity limits in the building and buses.

3. Distance learning only.

Cloquet superintendent Michael Cary said the district will be working to figure out how to make each scenario work all summer long, adding that the three scenarios were not as expected.

If infection rates stay low, he is optimistic.

"I'm not a betting person, but my guess right now would be that we will probably open the school year at school and see how that progresses and maybe switch from there," Cary said.

The key is being able to respond at a local level to COVID-19 infections, Cary said.

"We could only have one option in place all year or we could flex ... at statewide or local levels. If Cloquet stayed relatively Covid-free, we might be going to school as normal with state recommendations, while a neighboring county with an outbreak might have to switch to hybrid or distance," Cary explained to members of the Cloquet school board at Monday's meeting. "They are trying to be sure schools are ready to respond to different levels of outbreak, so they can contain an outbreak at a more localized level rather than making sweeping proclamations."

The state has promised it will make an announcement the last week of July or early August about how school will start.

The scenarios are each quite different.

The first scenario still includes substantial requirements, but is the least strict. Schools will not be held to a strict 6-foot social distancing between all students. Additionally, according to state guidelines, activities and extracurricular programming would follow the state health department's guidelines for youth, student and child care programs. This scenario may be implemented if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize and/or improve, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

Scenario 2 is more challenging, Cary said. In this planning scenario, schools must limit the overall number of people in school facilities and on transportation vehicles to 50-percent maximum occupancy. There must be sufficient social distancing with at least 6 feet between people at all times. If distancing cannot be achieved in a space or on a transportation vehicle, the number of occupants must be reduced. Schools must also include plans for contactless pickup and/or delivery of meals and school materials for days that students and staff are not in the school building, as well as implementation of a school-age care program for critical workers. This scenario may be implemented if COVID-19 metrics worsen at the local, regional, or statewide level. Scenario 2 may also be implemented within a school if they experience clusters of cases within a classroom or the school.

"Right now we're having people start to look into capacity at our sites, capacity on transportation and look at the Department of Health requirements to figure out how many we could actually logistically serve each day under those requirements," Cary said. "In a hybrid scenario the best-case scenario would be an every-other-day rotation, but we're not certain at this point if we have sufficient numbers of buses or sufficient space in our classrooms to actually operate at 50-percent capacity and keep social distancing in place."

If they couldn't fit half the kids in school and maintain that 6-feet of distancing, they might have to go to 30 percent, and then it would be a rotation of every three days, he said.

The third scenario, distance learning for all, would be implemented if local, regional, or statewide COVID-19 metrics worsen significantly enough to require the suspension of in-person learning.

Schools need to make accommodations for staff in high-risk health categories if there is a return to in-person learning this fall. Schools must offer a distance learning option to any students or families that want or need it. If a family doesn't want to send their student back to in-person learning for any reason, the school is supposed to provide them an option for continuing to learn while at home.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education issued a 16-page planning guide for schools on June 18. It includes sections covering guidelines for social distancing, face coverings, hygiene and cleaning, monitoring for illness, handling suspected cases, water and ventilation systems, transportation and supporting mental health and wellness as well as protecting vulnerable populations.

In other matters Monday, the board thanked high school science teacher Debra Mikkola for her many years of teaching at the district. In her resignation letter, Mikkola said the possibility of more distance learning led to her decision to retire a year earlier than planned, in large part because of the challenges of restructuring her lab-based science classes and the fact that she was scheduled to teach six large classes next year because of an unusually large group of ninth-graders entering the high school. Middle school science teacher Matthew Winbigler will be transferring to the high school to replace Mikkola.

The board also approved a facility use agreement with Carlton County Public Health and Human Services to use the gymnasium area, including locker rooms and the concession stand, in case of a large COVID-19 outbreak resulting in the need to house a large number of homeless youth whose families were sick or otherwise couldn't care for them, but only if the school were closed. The district would not charge the county rent, but the county would reimburse the district.

"I'd like to think as public agencies we would do our best to help each other out when possible," Cary said.


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