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Safe return to school

Walz unveils plan that allows districts some flexibility

Independent file photo Marshall Middle School students get off the bus in August 2014. Getting off the school bus will look a little different this fall when students return to the classroom. Gov. Tim Walz on Thursday unveiled the state’s plan for reopening schools.

MARSHALL — School will look different for area kids returning to class this year, that much is certain. But how big the differences will be will depend partly on each school district, and partly on how much spread of COVID-19 there is in area communities.

On Thursday, Gov. Tim Walz, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health said this fall schools can return to in-person classes, distance learning or a combination of the two, based on the COVID-19 rates in their counties.

“We know how important this decision is,” Walz said in a Thursday press conference. Walz and other state officials said it was important that the needs of individual schools and families be included in the plans for returning to school.

Plans for schools around the Marshall area are varied, but school administrators said they were glad to see schools get some choice in how they move forward this fall.

“I certainly am happy the are allowing some local control,” said Dan Deitte, superintendent of Minneota and Ivanhoe Public Schools. Area schools will be able to use plans based on local health data, instead of a “one size fits all” plan for the whole state, he said.

Earlier this summer, Minnesota school districts were instructed to prepare learning plans for three different options in the fall: distance learning, having class in-person, and a “hybrid model,” which would mix both approaches so schools could strictly follow social distancing guidelines.

At Thursday’s press conference, MDH Commissioner Jan Malcolm outlined the steps that the MDH and MDE will use to help schools develop safe learning plans. Malcolm said the health data the state and schools will consider includes data about which age groups of students are more likely to spread coronavirus, as well as the rate of new COVID-19 cases being reported per 10,000 people in each county.

For example, Malcolm said, if a county has had a rate of zero to nine new COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people over the past two weeks, schools could likely return to normal in-person classes at all age levels. Schools could start using a hybrid or distance learning approach depending on how high the rate of new cases was. If there were over 50 new cases per 10,000 people, schools would likely go back to distance learning for all students.

Malcolm said the COVID-19 case rate numbers won’t by themselves determine what teaching model a school can use.

“This is where you start the conversation,” she said.

State officials said the statewide mask mandate would also apply to children in school. Distance learning options would also need to be available for families who have children with health risks, or who aren’t comfortable sending their children back to school.

“I’m not kidding anyone. This is going to be hard,” Walz said of adapting Minnesota schools to COVID-19. If conditions change with the pandemic, schools may even have to change their learning approaches mid-school year.

State officials said pre-kindergarten programs would need to consider the same health data as public schools. Private schools were not included under the state guidance.

After the governor’s announcement on Thursday, several area school districts were getting straight to work making additional plans for returning to class. Marshall Public Schools was one of those districts. A Facebook update posted just after the announcement said MPS was taking time to review the information and update the district’s plans to meet the new guidelines. A proposed learning plan will go before the Marshall School Board on Monday.

“Based upon the information shared by the MDE and the MDH, the recommendation would be to start in a hybrid model,” said Marshall Superintendent Jeremy Williams. “MPS will continue to monitor the guidance and data provided by these organizations. On Monday, August 3, the school board will hear the proposed learning plan and will share additional information with families and the community at that time.”

Earlier this week, Williams said MPS had been working on plans for each of the three possible learning options for the district.

“The hybrid model is the hard one,” Williams said. MPS’s school facilities aren’t big enough to accommodate all students under strict social distancing guidelines. At the elementary level, hybrid learning might mean having about 80% of students in the building at one time, while 20% do distance learning. “Pods” of students could rotate through having four days a week in the classroom and one day a week doing distance learning, Williams said.

The hybrid model would look different for older students, however.

“It’s different even at the middle school,” Williams said — students in middle and high school move around a lot more from class to class. To accommodate that, older students might have only three days a week of in-person instruction.

“I feel like in Marshall we’re very fortunate” in that students have one-to-one devices they can use for distance learning, Williams said. But some classes will still need some hands-on instruction that can’t be done through distance learning.

Student body and building sizes make a big difference on how area school districts can address COVID-19 safety. Other school districts in the Marshall area are making plans to go back to in-person classes this fall.

“We’ve prepared for the last seven weeks to spread our kids six feet apart,” which would work for either in-person or hybrid learning plans, Deitte said. Deitte said both the Minneota and Ivanhoe school districts had enough space in buildings and school buses to spread students out. In Minneota, he said some larger rooms, like the library, band and choir rooms could also be converted into classroom space to accommodate larger classes. Meanwhile, band and choir classes will be held at the Minneota American Legion hall so students can spread out.

“We’re doing some unique things,” he said.

Deitte said the Minneota School Board would meet to go over the learning plan Thursday night, while the Ivanhoe School Board would meet Monday.

“Our preference is to have the kids back in the building,” said Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske. In a survey, more than 92% of Lakeview parents said they wanted to have in-person classes this fall, he said.

Fenske said Lakeview is another school district that is fortunate enough that it will be able to stay under the building capacity limits needed for a hybrid learning model.

“On the elementary side, we do have some classes that are bigger than others,” he said. In that case, classroom assignments might be rearranged to give students the necessary space. Other shared spaces like the school commons area, the band and choir rooms or the secondary gym could also be used as classroom space or for expanded lunch space, he said.

While the plan the governor unveiled Thursday didn’t include private schools, some Marshall area private schools said they were still waiting to hear the plan. Samuel Lutheran School Principal Ryan Obry said the school would be “fine-tuning” its plans based on what the governor had to say. For example, Samuel Lutheran shares its bus service with Marshall Public Schools, so it would be important to learn how MPS is affected.

Holy Redeemer School Principal Josh Langseth said he was glad to hear how schools could develop localized plans.

“That was kind of my hope,” Langseth said. “We want to do what’s best for kids.”

Langseth said the plan at Holy Redeemer was to go back to in-person classes, but with a maximum class size of 20 students, and safety measures like desk guards and spreading out students.

Langseth said Holy Redeemer had seen some families reach out about enrollment, but he wasn’t sure if their interest was due to COVID-19.

“Ultimately, I want families to do what’s best for them,” he said.

How schools determine their safe learning model

• STEP 1: Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) will use data from counties to determine a base learning model

• STEP 2: Minnesota Department of Education will share county data and the consultative process for public school to engage with education and public health experts to review their county health data and safe learning plans

• STEP 3: Public schools, with their incident command team, will evaluate their ability to implement required and recommended health practices

• STEP 4: Public schools, in consultation with public health, will determine a learning model to begin the school year and communicate that decision with their school community

• STEP 5: Public schools and MDH will monitor the community and school-level impact of COVID-19 on a regular basis. Adjustments will be made to the learning model if needed

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