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Cloquet schools still on for in-class opening


August 28, 2020

Jana Peterson

Students change classes at Cloquet middle school last spring before the pandemic closed schools for the rest of the year.

It's official. Cloquet students will return to school in-person after Labor Day, unless they choose individually to opt out for distance learning.

The decision came when it did based on two factors. One, that the state told school districts they must inform families of how school will start - with in-person, hybrid or distance learning models - at least two weeks before the start date, which is Wednesday, Sept. 9 for Cloquet. And second, they waited for the most recent report from Minnesota Department of Health, which releases the number of people currently positive for Covid-19 per 10,000 residents in each county every Thursday. The number for Carlton County last week was 7.6, which still meets the state guidelines for in-person learning for all students.

Superintendent Michael Cary said even if the numbers increase before the start of school and move into the next tier of recommended learning models, the school district will still start in-person and work with a MDH regional support team to figure out how fast they need to transition to the next model, based on the numbers.

"We would work with them on a transition plan for when we shift from full in-person to hybrid. We would err on the side of giving families as much lead time as possible and still keeping students and staff safe," he said. "But hopefully our numbers will stay (below 10) where the kids can all go in person."

Cary cautioned that the district could see multiple changes throughout the school year, noting that the state guidelines give them up to five days to make that shift during the school year.

The state guidelines are fairly clear.

If cases climb to between 10 and below 20 per 10,000, the state recommends elementary students attend school in person and secondary students study in a hybrid scenario with both in-person and distance learning. Between 20 to below 30, both elementary and secondary schools would study in a hybrid scenario. At 30 to below 40, elementary schools should go hybrid and secondary schools should go to distance learning. If the number of cases exceeds 50 per 10,000, schools would go to distance learning for all.

Cary said the district had asked families to notify their schools by Wednesday, Aug. 26 if they were going to opt for distance learning. As of Monday, about 400 of roughly 2600 students had confirmed they would distance-learn. Cary said according to the survey earlier this month, they were expecting closer to 600, but there were still a couple days left.

Although families can change their minds either way and either choose to come back to school or shift to distance learning at any time, Cary said they are encouraging K-6 students to try to make the switch at a grading break, so they have the same teacher for that grading period.

As in the spring, the district is obligated to provide meals for those who opt for distance learning. However, those will not be delivered by bus as they were in the spring, because right now the buses are needed for delivering students to and from the schools, Cary said. Rather, the district is planning to have families order meals one week in advance for pickup at a particular time from each building. Like everything else in a pandemic school year, that could change.

"We have an initial plan to start," he said. "Based on how the first few days go, we are planning to adjust things."

Another change for older distance learners from the spring is the expectation that students who are learning from home will get up and attend classes online, at the same time as their peers at school.

"The state wants it to be as equitable as possible for all students," Cary said. "We thought having kids log on through the same schedule as their peers makes sure there's no discrepancy between at-school and at-home (in terms of covering the same amount of learning)."

Bus routes are still a work in progress, Cary said. The school district is expecting to run more buses this school year, because routes are being reorganized to pick up by grade level, keeping secondary students and elementary students separated.

Additionally, all grades are being divided into A, B and C groups. That way if the district goes to a hybrid model, it will keep kids from the same household in the same group as their siblings so they would attend school on the same day.

Students who come to school and then get sick will be referred to the nurse, who will assess their symptoms. If they are consistent with Covid-19, the student will be supervised in isolation until they can be picked up and taken home from school.

Board member Hawk Huard asked the district facilities and grounds director Dylan Carlson if the disease could be transmitted through a school's HVAC system.

Dylan said school custodians are making sure the HVAC units have proper air exchange on a daily basis.

Staffing fluctuations

In addition to numerous paraprofessionals who requested and have been granted a one-year leave of absence, the school district is grappling with some unexpected teacher shortages due to early retirement and one leave of absence request due to health issues and the pandemic. Cary hinted that the board could be seeing four requests from other teachers for a leave of absence for the school year in the near future.

Additionally, some schools need more staff than usual because of the way they are teaching students who are in-school and at home.

At the elementary levels, schools will likely staff classrooms for in-person learning and have another teacher to support families and students through distance learning. They are adding at least a couple teaching sections to the elementary schools and it's happening "very rapidly,"

Cary said.

The middle school is switching to a block schedule because it will work best with a hybrid system, but the change requires the school to increase staff specialist positions (in music, art and physical education) by 0.2, making those teachers full-time for this school year only, a move the board approved after extensive discussion.

Cary said the district has been advertising for people to apply for both certified and noncertified jobs so they could build up a list of staff to fill in where people choose to go on leave.

"That way we have a readymade pool of applicants if jobs open up," he said, "whether that's because of grant money, shuffling staff or vacancies created by staff taking a leave."

He also pointed out that the professional education licensing and standards board has waived some of the rules around out-of-field placement during the pandemic, which will help in finding replacement staff.

Cary said the district will cover the additional staff costs with some of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funds the school has received.

"My understanding of one-year leave is it's for one year," Buyteart said, bringing up the possibility of teachers who might want to come back if the district goes to all-distance learning. "There's no do-overs. You're leaving for a year. By approving this, that's my understanding."

The school board set a special meeting for 5 p.m. Monday, Aug. 31 to approve any new hires, because new staff were supposed to start Aug. 27 or 28.

In other matters Monday, school board members heard about plans to redesign and remodel both the art and career and technical education spaces inside the school to create an area that could share a new "fab lab" that would hold equipment such as 3-D printers and computers with high-end programs such as Photoshop and CAD-based design software, which are used by artists and vocational students alike. The board voted unanimously to allow ARI Architects to proceed with professional design services for the space.

"This falls in line with our strategic plan: improving career and tech ed is a top priority," Cary told the board.


Back-to-school toolkit offered

With schools preparing to reopen across the region, families are deciding how their children will attend - in person, via distance learning or some combination of the two. Safety concerns stemming from COVID-19 ensure that the start of this school year will look vastly different than most.

Essentia Health is excited to offer a back-to-school digital toolkit ( aimed at keeping students and educators safe on campus.

The toolkit contains resources for topics such as how to properly wear and clean a face mask; recommendations for effective social distancing inside and out of the classroom; additional safety precautions; and answers to frequently asked questions.


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