County schools continue reopening scramble


August 14, 2020

There are outliers among Carlton County schools, those that won’t be coming back this fall with all of their students. So far, students in Esko, Carlton, Cromwell-Wright, Moose Lake and Barnum will likely go back to school en masse next month if the number of positive Covid-19 cases remains low. Decisions have already been made by some boards or have been recommended. Cloquet won’t make a final decision until Aug. 24, when more numbers come in on the number of coronavirus cases in the county.

Wrenshall, by virtue of a delayed construction project leaving classrooms unavailable, will go mostly online for high school students and halftime on campus for those in the elementary grades.

The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School announced this week that it will start online for all of its K-12 students after the band reported six confirmed cases of Covid-19 on tribal land.

State guidelines will ultimately shape the school year for all the districts, given that the structure of education will depend on the number of cases found in the county. If they trend upward, and students and staff face an elevated risk by being on campus, the districts are preparing for rapid shifts in plans, reverting to online instruction or a hybrid model.

In short, parents and students will need to be vigilant with messaging from the districts on what the school day will look like as the pandemic continues without a vaccine or end in sight.

Fond du Lac superintendent Jennifer Murray said a look at what’s happening across the country as schools reopen helped guide the decision to keep students home.

“Covid-19 has been spreading in schools and in sports at alarming rates,” she wrote in a letter issued by the district. “I have consulted with the medical staff and sought support from our tribal government,” she wrote. “The Ojibwe School would love to have all our students and staff return to in-person class. However, due to the pandemic and its ever-changing path we can no longer say it is safe for our children, families, and staff to return to in-person classes.”

Covid-19 has been upsetting nearly every aspect of daily life, and that includes the construction industry. Wrenshall superintendent Kim Belcastro said the air quality improvement project begun this summer is six to eight weeks behind because materials have been hard to come by. Much of that work is in the elementary portion of the building.

Wrenshall had been leaning toward a hybrid model since it began working on its reopening plan in late June. The construction conundrum sealed the decision for the board last week, as elementary students will be using high school classrooms.

Elementary students will be placed into two groups. One group will have classes on Monday and Tuesday while the other does online learning. They will switch roles on Thursday and Friday.

High school students will be on campus on Wednesdays only. They will also be split into two groups and alternate the weekly day on campus, meaning older students will have a full in-person class day at least twice a month.

Teachers in Wrenshall reported to the board last week that any personal contact with students is better than none at all. “We want to be with our kids,” said Niki Rowland, an elementary teacher and local president of the Education Minnesota local union unit. “We just want to keep it as safe as we can.”

After a trial by fire last spring, teachers have been boning up on improving online experiences for students. It’s something even districts that are inviting all students to campus will need to deal with as up to 30 percent of parents in county districts are opting for keeping their students at home, an option allowed under the state guidelines released last month.

Wrenshall secondary English teacher Ted Conover said he is working on a “robust distance learning” plan. It will leverage technology but keep in mind that the distance experience can’t be all “screen time.” He said teachers will be encouraged to ask students to get outdoors and do projects away from the computer.

Wrenshall board members said the hybrid plan will make the district more responsive to the quick changes expected during the pandemic. “We’ve got ways to move this up and down,” Janaki Fisher-Merrit said. “I think it’s the best thing for our kids.”

Belcastro said she was happy to see the Duluth district also opt for a hybrid model, warning that districts can’t just “stick with this face-to-face thing.” They have to adapt and look out for the best interests of students and staff.

Carlton interim superintendent John Engstrom told his board Monday that despite the recommendation to bring all students back, considerations around the plan begin and end with the health and safety of students and staff. The board is expected to vote on the reopening at its regular monthly meeting Monday.

Barnum superintendent Mike McNulty is also wary. “I believe our communities, staff and county will need to all work together to best follow health guidelines, monitor their families and students, and work with each other to make our schools operate,” he said. “Everyone in the school system is doing their best to go beyond all requirements to educate the students safely.

Moose Lake superintendent Billie Jo Steen said the district “will be working with families to let them know that although it looks like we may start in-person, they may have to be ready to do a hybrid scenario for grades 7-12 if our local infection rates increase.”

A survey earlier this summer showed 70 percent of Moose Lake respondents would plan to send their students no matter what learning mode the district used.

“Some families were waiting to gather more information before making that decision about returning to school this fall,” Steen said. “I believe people are eager to get back to normal but are also aware that this year is going to look anything but normal even if we are back to full-time in-person learning.”


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