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Surveys, stats and state will drive school openings


August 7, 2020

Pine Knot file art

Special programs like this with author Chris Monroe will look very different this year, with social distancing measures in place at schools.

An August scramble like no other is on across Carlton County this August as schools prepare to reopen for the year. School boards, staff and administrators are meeting this week and next to make almost-final decisions after it was announced last week by Gov. Tim Walz that districts will have discretion on how school days will go while still in the grips of the Covid-19 pandemic.

This week, more fodder was tossed in as the Minnesota State High School League on Tuesday moved the volleyball and football seasons to the spring but allowed girls tennis, boys and girls cross country and girls swimming and diving, boys and girls soccer to start Aug. 17 under careful pandemic protocols.

It all adds more abnormality to school systems that abruptly switched to distance learning in March when pandemic fears of massive virus spread changed the world as we knew it. Staff, students and parents had to adjust and accept that the traditions that revolve around the school district had to be put on hold.

All of the upset has made for an uneasy summer when thinking about a new school year while the pandemic continues.

On July 30, Walz tasked school leaders to make staff and students health their top priorities and also do what they can to keep kids in school buildings.

The state plan emphasizes in-person classroom teaching but leaves it to districts to ultimately decide whether students will start the year in buildings, online or some combination of the two, all based on their local Covid-19 rates. The state said it will provide analytical guidance during the school year to help superintendents decide if they need to alter plans.

Cloquet will make a final decision on Aug. 21 but the Covid-19 rates in the county mean it will likely lean toward full-time classroom learning, superintendent Michael Cary said. That all could change, of course.

"Our review of like-sized counties showed that county Covid rates per 10,000 residents can fluctuate quickly," he said. "We did not want to commit to a final determination that may be inconsistent with the situation in the county when school opens. Based on our current data, all grade levels would be open for full in-person learning. It is possible that these numbers could shift enough in the coming weeks to result in a change in model."

The Esko school board made the decision Tuesday to open with all students in the classroom. "Even though we make some decisions tonight, those decisions could change at any point depending on what circumstances come up," superintendent Aaron Fischer said as the board discussed its options.

Fischer said the state's goals include prioritizing the safety of students and staff, prioritizing in-person learning, considering infectiousness and transmission risk in different age groups, allowing for flexibility in planning, and taking into account case numbers in local settings.

"Whatever we decide, we will ultimately work to provide the best experience and the safest experience we can," Fischer said.

In Carlton, interim superintendent John Engstrom said the district is also leaning toward students being in the classroom. "Based on the current county numbers, we're concentrating our immediate efforts on preparations for students to return to both of our buildings," he said.

"I am anticipating a hybrid scenario with some distance learning," said Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro. Her district has been working on a reopening plan since midsummer, with its protocols and combination of home and school learning closely followed by schools across the region.

Parents and teachers are driving a push to be cautious about opening the floodgates and returning to normal operations, Belcastro said. "There will be less students on site at one time. There will be a concentrated effort on making sure to not have students congregating like we have traditionally encouraged over the years."

There's been a whirlwind of decisions to make, said Cloquet's Cary. "There are many items our school leaders are working to put in place under a short timeline," he said. "Managing the volume of logistical decisions under the number of possible scenarios has been the most challenging."

State funding will be available for masks and other protective equipment and for testing.

"It's gonna be a first day of school unlike any we've seen," Walz said as he announced what he called a "not perfect" plan.

The Pine Knot News presented questions to superintendents across Carlton County on what the school year will look like. All of them were still in the throes of finalizing plans through committee and school board meetings and votes. Here is what those who responded had to say:


Superintendent John John Engstrom said "We need to make plans for every scenario. Based on the current county numbers, we're concentrating our immediate efforts on preparations for students to return to both of our buildings."

But that won't be anything normal. "The county numbers may change," he said. "It appears most likely that our elementary students will be in school every day. Secondary students will either be here every day or on a hybrid model (distance learning and in-school time)."

Operations at the district's high school and elementary will "look and feel different," Engstrom said. "They will make school look and feel different as well. Parents won't be walking their young children to classrooms, handshakes and high-fives are out, masks and social distancing are in. Recess and lunch will be done in small groups, and the list goes on and on."

The district is also assessing the sentiments of parents and its staff on how to proceed, he said. It is sending surveys to them this week. "While we have some tentative scheduling ideas, we'll use the feedback to make our final decisions."

It is, indeed, unprecedented times for schools as part of the pandemic that has changed life as we know it. "This is going to be a challenging year for students, families, schools, businesses, and local communities," Engstrom said. "For us, this is a team effort. Our staff has already volunteered countless hours this summer helping us develop plans to educate our students in a safe environment. We're doing the best we can."


Superintendent Michael Cary said Cloquet will follow the state guidelines that lean toward in-class learning. "My interpretation is that it's the expectation for districts to follow the plan unless there are specific local conditions that don't allow for proper implementation," he said. "These conditions could range from a district not having proper capacity to follow all state requirements or specific local spikes in Covid that vary from the overall county numbers."

He said that while discretion was bandied about in the state announcement, districts are bound by some of the language coming from St. Paul.

"It does not paint the picture that districts have full autonomy to open as they wish," he said. "The intention appears to be to create a plan districts follow, but allow for minor deviation from the plan if local conditions warrant it. It's apparent our state officials have given a great deal of thought in creating this plan. It's important to understand that our state agencies have access to expert epidemiologists and education experts who were involved in crafting the plan. In my review, it provides a strong balance of supporting the education of our young people and protecting the health of our community. This is a tough balance to achieve."

The district will be flexible, Cary said.

"It is possible that these numbers could shift enough in the coming weeks to result in a change in model," he said. "Should this occur, it's most likely that the other model would be full in-person school for elementary students, with a hybrid model for middle and high school students."

The hybrid model would have older students attending in person once every three days on a rotation and attending school online the other two days, Cary said.

"We are asking our families to be prepared for either of these most likely scenarios and we will announce the final model early the week of August 24."

The district will make its final determination for the start of school Sept. 9 based on the most recent data available Aug. 21.

Distance learning remains an option for any student who requests it, he said. "We will share the process for signing up for distance learning at the same time we announce the model for the opening of school."

Cary said feedback from staff and parents has been mixed. "It appears that most staff and families want to return to in-person schooling. That said, there is still a substantial proportion of families and staff who have concerns regarding a return to in-person schooling. Our early survey results, which are not complete at this point, show around 20 percent of families indicating they will choose a distance option if schools open to in-person learning."

Cary said it will be a "challenge to quickly gather information on the number of families that will opt for distance learning and to adjust staffing to fit the demand. This is the reason we released our survey to families this week. We wanted to gauge the number of interested families to better understand the demand within the community to plan for staffing."

Cary said he's "confident we'll be able to make this work for fall. We have a wonderful administrative team that is working hard to make this work for our families."


Pegging its decision to state guidelines and infection rates in the district, the Esko school board voted Tuesday to allow in-person schooling for all students at the start of the school year.

As with all districts, strict safety precautions will be employed to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Students and staff will wear masks and other protective equipment. There will be frequent daily cleaning of high-touch spaces, and group activities will be limited.

If the number of positive cases in Carlton County rises above 9 per 10,000 residents, into the 10-19 (per 10,000) category, the school plan would change to in-person learning for elementary students and a hybrid learning style for secondary students. Each time the number of cases goes up by 10 per 10,000, the learning style would change again. Once the number of cases exceeds 50 per 10,000 in Carlton County, the school would go to distance learning for all.

As of Tuesday and the special board meeting, Carlton County was at a 5.06 case rate per 10,000. The district also serves students living in St. Louis County, where the rate was 5.5.

There will be two more case number evaluations before the planned opening Sept. 8. If the number of cases goes up before then, Esko may need to begin the school year with hybrid or distance learning.

The school board took into consideration the discussions of a special committee created to review options for returning to school. Two of the board members, Todd Rengo and Margaret Sunnarborg, were part of the committee.

"The fact that we have the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health putting together those guidelines, there's no other entity that can provide the guidance and insight that we need," Rengo said. "It gives us a framework. The governor provided those guidelines for us."

Sunnarborg said the focus of the committee was the safety of the students and staff. "I know in my heart that every single person on that committee cares so much and will do everything in their power to make sure that the school and our community is as safe as it possibly can be when we open those doors. I think that's the most important thing and the only thing we can do at this point."


Superintendent Kim Belcastro has had the busiest summer of her educational life as her school deals with remodeling of its air quality systems and the pandemic. "It is certainly a different time and one that I have not been able to even compare it to in my 30 years working in the public schools," she said.

Wrenshall has used a consultant and the consortium of area schools to formulate a plan for reopening. Early on, Wrenshall developed a plan while awaiting guidance from the state.

The Restart Blueprint plan is a "comprehensive plan to deal with the complexities of Covid-19 and which focuses on safety practices and planning efforts across the district," Belcastro said. The school also has some extra hills to climb on reopening, she said.

"(We're) in a unique situation now due to the asbestos abatement and indoor air quality facility project that is underway," she said. "There is a portion of the school that will not be opened for the first six to eight weeks of the school year ... This provides more complexities to the situation for fall."

Guidelines mandate a survey of parents and staff and, as in other districts, their sentiments will be weighed in considering plans for the fall.

"I am anticipating a hybrid scenario with some distance learning," Belcastro said. She said parents have the right to request full-time distance learning. There is a fear out there about the health consequences of opening schools, she said. "The Education Minnesota-Wrenshall teachers union also surveyed the members and 75 percent of the members are not comfortable coming back with the traditional, face-to-face option." She said she is "hearing a lot of concern" from parents about the safety of children in schools during a pandemic.

Belcastro said she's heard from about 70 families who want their children to do distance learning. The district's K-12 enrollment in Wrenshall is 378 students.

Things will not look the same for those who are in school, Belcastro said. "I picture a focus on establishing routines with a priority on keeping students and staff members safe. The school meals will be either delivered or served in classrooms. There will be an increased use of technology and a continuous effort of communicating with parents and guardians through Google Meet or Zoom meetings ... I am proud of our staff for embracing the technology and learning new ways of educating and communicating."

The custodial crew "has been learning new ways and new routines for keeping spaces sanitized and safe for all," she said.

It's a massive change that Belcastro believes will have lasting impact: "I personally believe that living through Covid-19 will positively transform how public schools educate students and communicate with parents."

Fond du Lac

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School has prepared policies for a phase 1-full learning at home program (lowest risk), phase 2-re-entering school at more-risk and Phase 3- the new normal (highest risk). School families and students will be informed of the reopening plan and given a choice between face-to-face learning, learning at home or a combination of both. The policies have been presented to the FDL Emergency Operations Center for approval. Policy for school sports and other after-school or group activities is still under development.

Plans are still in flux for the start of school on Aug. 26, Ojibwe School Superintendent Jenn Murray said Wednesday. They had been hoping to open in Phase 2.

Murray estimated this week that about 30 percent of kids would choose distance learning - families had until Friday to respond - but that was before news broke Wednesday morning that two people had tested positive on the reservation, the first confirmed cases there. The school services a huge area, from McGregor to Duluth, not only students who live on the reservation.

"We don't know what we have, but having plans in place and planning for the 'what ifs' was necessary. It's 'the dial' like the governor says: we might have to dial back or roll it forward. But now that we have cases on the reservation, we're prepared. But I'd really love to see the kids back in school," if the circumstances are right and healthy, she added.

Change is to be expected, Murray said.

"If we come back to school in person does not mean we're going to continue consistently. If and when we shut down, our students and staff will be prepared to do exactly what we did in March - however, it will be better," Murray told WGZS manager Dan Huculak during a recent reservation radio interview. "We will have better services for them. And we will continue doing the lunches; that worked really well ... and gave us some contact with our families."

Governor Tim Walz commented on an excerpt from the Murray interview in a KAXE radio interview posted to, noting that her leadership is what the state is looking for from schools. He stressed that Minnesota is in a much better position than it was this spring.

"We asked our schools and our parents to deal with a retooling of public education that has never been seen before," he said. "In many cases it didn't work as well as it could have, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. We've learned a lot. ... (and) we're going to adjust accordingly. Where you start in September may not be where you're at in December or where you're at in May."

Walz was optimistic in the interview, and expressed hope that if vaccine trials are successful and other pandemic responses like masks work, then maybe there will be graduations and proms in the spring.

"I don't want to set unrealistic expectations, but I do think it's important to understand - we are not totally at the mercy of whatever Covid does," Walz said in the KAXE interview. "It will do what it does, but we can direct it, we can change it. Hearing Superintendent Murray say, You know what we're going to do in the age of Covid, we're going to care for and educate these children. That's very encouraging to me."


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