Updated: Covid continues to stalk schools
November 6, 2020
When the 14-day Covid-19 rate in Carton County came in at 20.54 Thursday, Oct. 29 - surpassing 20 cases per 10,000 residents - it meant school districts needed to consider moving all students to a hybrid learning model.
But state officials also say that the county-level data is only a starting point: school districts should also consider the number of confirmed cases, quarantines, and close contacts in their school community, at each school building, and other data such as individuals with influenza-like illness.
The so-called "scalpel approach" allows school districts and charter schools within the same county to follow different learning models.
That idea is now playing out in Carlton County, with all Cloquet schools planning a switch to distance learning next week, while Wrenshall was hoping it could get more students in school each week by implementing a hybrid learning schedule for all grades ... but that isn't happening now because of the rise in Covid numbers. The Fond du Lac Ojibwe School has been distance learning since the start of the school year. As of presstime, Barnum had switched elementary students to distance learning, but not secondary students.
Schools choosing to move to distance learning can continue with sports and activities; but if they're required to change to distance learning because of illness levels, the state says activities and sports must cease.
"If your data indicates that substantial, uncontrolled community spread is occurring and/or there is a significant degree of impact on the school community, with multiple confirmed cases or large-scale outbreaks occurring among students and staff, then you must move to distance learning and discontinue activities and athletics for a minimum of two weeks," Minnesota deputy commissioner of education Heather Mueller wrote to school officials.
So far - although individual sports teams have had to quarantine or shuffle schedules - all Carlton County schools are still offering sports and other activities, although some individual sports have been affected. Cloquet confirmed Thursday that its activities are continuing for now.
But hat could change all too quickly, especially if rates continue to rise. Here is a roundup of several schools and how they're changing plans, or not.
Cloquet school district officials announced Wednesday that all grades will shift to distance learning next week, with the date depending on grade level.
It's a move district officials didn't want to make, because students do better when they have at least some face-to-face contact with their teachers, superintendent Michael Cary told school board members last week.
But the numbers of sick people and exposures to Covid are simply too high.
"In the county, we went from seeing an average of five new Covid cases per day to an average closer to 25-30 new cases per day," Cary announced in an email to Cloquet parents Wednesday afternoon. "We are anticipating county case rate data in the coming weeks to be well in excess of 50 cases per 10,000. It's important to note that county health officials are seeing the spread happen outside of schools, but those cases then come into the schools as a result. The 50 per 10,000 resident case rate triggers the review of a full distance learning model for all students. That said, it is not the case rate alone that is pushing us to distance learning. The rapid spike in cases, along with quarantine requirements for close contacts, has left our district with severe staff shortages ... Our ability to safely staff our classrooms is very near a breaking point and is trending in the wrong direction. This complication is also strongly contributing to the need to move to distance learning."
In Cloquet, grades 7-12 will shift to full distance learning beginning Tuesday, Nov. 10 after a day off Monday. Grades K-6 will continue with in-person instruction through Wednesday, Nov. 11, then no school Nov. 12-13, with the first day of distance learning Nov. 16.
Due to a case of Covid-19 in the elementary school, and the number of elementary school staff who must be quarantined, Barnum elementary school students are switching to distance learning effective Friday, Nov. 6. Students got time off Wednesday and Thursday to allow staff to plan for the shift in learning styles. According to an announcement on the website, the change is effective through Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving break.
The regional planning team, along with local public health, will conduct an evaluation the week of Nov. 16-20 to determine if the elementary school students can return to school in person or under the hybrid model on Monday, Nov. 30.
Secondary students in grades 7-12 will remain with the current hybrid learning model plan.
Superintendent Mike McNulty asked that people follow guidance to help limit the spread of the disease.
"As of today we are fine," he wrote on Monday, adding that there is a need for substitutes in all areas.
"Subs are short and if we have too many staff that may have to quarantine following the Decision Tree protocol, that will cause issues."
Carlton secondary students have been following the hybrid learning model since the first weeks of school. Students at South Terrace are currently attending school in person every day.
In an email to the Pine Knot on Monday, Carlton superintendent John Engstrom said the school has been minimally impacted so far, and staffing levels are a concern, but have not been an issue yet.
"Our activities have been impacted on the margins: a football game canceled because another district went to distance learning and suspended activities," he said. "A pause in volleyball due to a possible exposure on another team. There had been no spread, either within our athletic groups or from one team to another."
Superintendent Nathan Libbon said Tuesday that after a consultation that included the Minnesota departments of education and health and Carlton County Public Health, it was determined that Cromwell-Wright would remain with its current in-person/hybrid model and would continue to consult local public health officials for future learning model decisions.
The high school has switched to distance learning through Nov. 13, and will return to hybrid learning on Nov. 16.
"Due to the present number of staff that have been identified as close contacts and needing to quarantine, our high school has gone to distance learning through Nov. 13," he said. "As is the case in all surrounding districts, substitutes remain in short supply. Our entire school staff continues to work incredibly hard to provide our children the best learning opportunity possible, under these current circumstances."
Moose Lake schools were not yet planning a change from hybrid learning at the secondary levels and in-person learning at the elementary school. They had not seen any positive cases resulting from exposure at the school as of Monday. They also haven't seen any spread through activities or sports, said superintendent Billie Jo Steen.
"We are putting in place a lot of the hybrid precautions with elementary without reducing their days in the building," she said, adding that they have reduced instructional time by 50 minutes a day.
Because they are in a sports cooperative with Willow River, if either school has to transition to mandatory distance learning, then sports and activities would cease, she said.
This fall has presented some different challenges than last spring, when schools were forced into distance learning for the final two months of school.
"My role is different this year," Steen said. "One thing that is certainly different is that we have to be ready to pivot between different learning models on very short notice. Last year we had eight days of planning to transition to distance learning and then were there for several weeks. The uncertainty this year is a bit more challenging as are the implications for staffing."
So far staffing levels have been OK, she said. Steen also asked that community members follow social distancing guidelines and wear masks to slow the spread and help keep the kids in school.
Update: Moose Lake football cancelled the rest of its season after learning that the players had to quarantine for two weeks.
Of all the superintendents, Esko's Aaron Fischer is the most emphatic that change can happen very quickly. When asked if they'd seen any spread of Covid-19 in the school building, his answer was "No, as of 11:05 a.m. on Nov. 3."
As with other districts, Fischer said staffing patterns are challenging because they have very few subs for every department.
Comparing last spring to this fall, Fischer said: "Both have been very difficult."
How can people help schools keep educating our children?
"Practice all of the recommendations to help stop the spread of the virus," he said.