Schools chart return course to classrooms
January 15, 2021
Expect to see children in a school near you very soon. School districts across Carlton County will have students back to in-person or hybrid learning as soon as next week, thanks to a change in state guidelines for Covid-19 precautions.
While the previous guidelines required districts to rely on county-level data on the level of virus transmission in their communities, the latest plan allows schools to bring students back as soon as Jan. 18, provided they meet certain requirements. Those include giving staff the option to test for Covid-19 every other week, and students must wear masks during all classes and indoor activities. School staff must wear both face masks and face shields at all times and there's a strong recommendation for 3 feet of physical distancing or more.
Not every school is the same, of course.
Nothing will change at Cromwell-Wright school, because it has remained in the in-person model all but two weeks of the school year. Most other county schools are bringing at least their youngest students back starting Jan. 19 or 26, with more to follow. Others are returning en masse.
It seems as though the state guidelines come with a great deal more flexibility than they did in the fall, because area schools are all a little different. Some, like Barnum, don't have to implement a phased approach, because the state said if a school had declared a return date, they could honor that. Others, like Carlton, aren't waiting two weeks before bringing in the next two grades.
Following is a school-by-school breakdown. For more detailed plans, please check the school website or contact the school.
Cloquet had not officially declared its plans as the Pine Knot News went to press Thursday morning, but superintendent Michael Cary shared district plans with school board members during Monday's Cloquet school board meeting. They hope to bring the first group of students back on Tuesday, Jan. 26, the first day of the third quarter. "But that is not concrete," Cary warned the board on Monday, adding that he hoped to have plans finalized and communicated to families by Friday, Jan. 15.
He outlined the tentative plans to the board, explaining that the state says schools can bring three grades back at a time, then they must wait two weeks to bring back the next group, Cary said.
If things go as tentatively planned, on Jan. 26 the Cloquet school district would bring back students in grades K-2 for in-person learning, plus grades 5-6 for in-person and grades 7-8 for hybrid learning at the middle school.
Grades 9 and 12 will likely return two days later, on Jan. 28, at the senior high, in a hybrid learning model. Almost two weeks later, on Feb. 8, grades 3-4 would return for full in-person learning and grades 10-11 would return to a hybrid schedule.
Cary said because the high school students have to move between classrooms, a hybrid model is the best option for now.
"We have them shifting throughout the building all day, because you have to, in order to let them get all the courses they need," Cary said. "In that situation, one positive case moving through the building throughout the day can lead to the quarantine of 50 or 60 people - if you're full in-person - because you can't keep enough space to keep them 6 feet apart.
They're bringing back ninth-graders and seniors first because that's where teachers are seeing the biggest issues with performance.
"We have a number of seniors who are falling off on credits and at risk of not graduating, so we want to get them back in as soon as possible to try to get those kids back on track to graduation," Cary said. "And then we're seeing huge drop-offs in our ninth-graders. Ninth grade is always a really difficult transition year for kids; it's the year that you typically lose the most kids - the ninth grade.
Families that have students who would return at different times can choose to wait two weeks for the early students to keep the family on the same schedule, Cary said.
Covid cases are still much higher than they were at the start of school, although down significantly from the peak in November. Using the state measurement, the highest 14-day case rate per 10,000 people for Carlton County was Nov. 8-21, when the number of cases reached 198. By comparison, the most recent report for Dec. 13-26 put the rate at 51.21 cases per 10,000. At that level - under earlier guidelines - the state would have recommended schools go to distance learning completely, but things have changed and the focus is now on getting students more face-to-face time with teachers, particularly in the younger grades.
"I think the really important thing to remember is for our youngest kids and our kids who are at risk, you can't calculate the impacts of this. We may see dropout rates and graduation rates impact for four or five years from now, just based on the impacts of these last nine or 10 months, negative lifelong impacts."
At the same time, there are concerns with moving away from distance learning, the superintendent said. Some community members have called and expressed worry about increased transmission of Covid-19. Others don't want teachers to go back until they're vaccinated.
"From what I've heard, I think the majority of our families would like to see their kids going back to school," Cary said. "We are going to watch it very closely. But we saw very little evidence of person-to-person spread in our schools even in mid-November, when rates were escalating dramatically across our region."
Barnum superintendent Mike McNulty said elementary students will start full in-person classes on Tuesday, Jan. 19, and Barnum high school students will have in-person learning on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with distance learning on Wednesday.
Lowering county health scores, staffing numbers and having the recommended mitigation strategies in place all played into that decision, McNulty said.
"The students coming back is fantastic for all the families and students," he said.
As has been the case since last March, McNulty pointed out that Covid-19 is a new, and learning, experience requiring everyone to continue to adapt.
"As it has been just over two months, it will take time again to get the students back in habits/protocol of school, and the extra emphasis of following mitigation strategies to help deter any spread of the virus," he said. "We need the communities to be smart regarding Covid protocol so that part does not deter any part of the students being back in the schools."
Carlton will bring back grades K-2 on Tuesday, Jan. 19 for full in-person learning, with grades 3-5 joining them on Jan. 26. Middle school and high school students will resume their A/B hybrid model on Jan. 26 as well.
Carlton superintendent John Engstrom said the school's Restart Committee met twice, to work through the plan and make sure they could answer questions people might ask. They walked through every classroom and checked on compliance with the new protocol recommendations. They also ordered additional PPE to supplement what the state will provide.
"We're excited to get the students back in the buildings and to resume athletics," Engstrom said.
Carlton is also seeing a slightly higher failure rate.
"It's hard to say if the move to all distance learning made the failure rate any worse. We've been bringing some students in on Wednesdays, we've been using all forms of communication to reach out to students and families," he said. "It's hard to completely redesign a grading and assessment model on the fly, but we've also had internal conversations about different ways to grade and assess in this unique situation."
As noted above, Cromwell-Wright school will remain in its in-person learning model, which also meets all the state requirements for hybrid learning.
Superintendent Nathan Libbon said there are families who choose distance learning, but they saw more students return to in-person learning after Christmas.
They have also had more students struggling with grades.
"After Christmas, we started an after-school study hall for any 7-12 students needing extra help with school work," Libbon said.
Starting Tuesday, Jan. 19, all Esko elementary school students (pre-K through sixth grade) will return to in-person learning five days a week. On Jan. 25, grades 7-12 will return to the same hybrid schedule used at the beginning of the school year.
Waiting a week to bring back the older students has several advantages, superintendent Aaron Fischer told the board at its Jan. 6 board meeting. "It gives us a week to adapt, plus it's the start of a new semester, which gives the older students a sense of a fresh, new start" to finish the school year, he said. "Basically, we will be back into the same learning model we were in when we decided in November to go to distance learning."
The challenges of distance learning have also brought growth. Staff and community members learned a lot of lessons about distance learning, Fischer said, pointing out that the 1:1 learning initiative implemented seven years ago meant the district could transition quickly.
"Even though we are working hard at distance learning, it is still evident that the best learning model for our students is to be on our campus with our students learning together with their teachers and classmates," Fischer said. "In addition, I am very sure that our parents would like to pass the teaching duties back to the teachers."
Esko has also seen more students struggling with grades and classes. Fischer said they have added a skills assistant to the high school staff to focus on the students that are having the most difficulty with distance learning. They will also be looking at using current resources to address any learning loss due to distance learning and the pandemic.
Fischer also noted the need for additional staffing. "We need bus drivers. We need paraprofessionals. We need help in the lunchroom. We need substitutes," Fischer said. He noted that the state has a program where anyone with a four-year degree can easily apply to substitute teach; no teaching degree is required. He told the board and the approximately 90 people watching online that if they knew anyone willing to take on a new job, to contact his office or Brian Harker, elementary school principal.
In an echo of statements he made in November, Fischer asked that people still be prepared for change at any time.
"Everyone needs to understand that the pandemic is still ongoing and this may cause changes to our learning model throughout the remainder of the school year," he said. "We will have students on campus learning as long as we can do this safely and can staff or programs and building appropriately."
Elementary students in Moose Lake returned to full-time learning on Tuesday, Jan. 12 and high school students will return to hybrid learning Tuesday, Jan. 19. They were able to do that after looking at local case spread and their ability to implement the mitigation measures in the governor's Safe Learning plan, according to superintendent Billie Jo Steen, adding that she appreciated the change to the matrix so they could get elementary students back to in-person learning sooner than they otherwise would have been able to.
"Our staff is excited to have students back in our building. We had challenges with staffing as a result of many people needing to quarantine in November when case rates were so high in our area, so there is an awareness that if rates increase, staffing could be challenging again. Otherwise, we are excited to see our students."
Distance learning has been a mixed bag.
"Teachers have worked incredibly hard to improve on distance learning from last spring. This year they held regular zoom classes in the elementary and high school, and high school classes were held synchronously," Steen said. "Many students are doing well in distance learning, but many who are less independent learners are struggling."
To help those students, they have hired a distance learning tutor, adjusted grading criteria, and increased the period of time students have to complete required work. Having 40 hotspots helped families who did not have internet access, she said.
Steen added a thank-you to all the students, parents, teachers and community for patience and understanding during this time.
"We truly are all in this together," she said.
On Jan. 11 the Wrenshall school board approved a revised transition plan for returning students to their K-12 school building in a more staggered manner. Grades K-2 will return to full in-person learning on Monday, Jan. 25. Grades 3-6 will start full in-person classes, Monday-Friday, on Feb. 8.
Grades 7-8 will begin hybrid learning on Feb. 22 and grades 9-12 will return to hybrid learning on March 8. The hybrid model for grades 7-12 includes two groups, with group A attending school on Mondays and Tuesdays and group B attending Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays are an independent distance learning day.
All grades will be in full in-person learning on April 6, depending on local Covid-19 case rates and approval from the regional support team.