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Lincoln Co. schools make plans for fall learning

The plan is to get students back into the classroom

LINCOLN COUNTY — What learning looks like at area schools this fall will partly depend on what COVID-19 rates look like in Minnesota counties, according to guidance the Minnesota Department of Health released last week. Thanks to spikes in COVID-19 cases in July, it looked like schools in Lincoln County might not return to in-person learning.

But area school superintendents say it’s too soon to make that call. COVID-19 rates have been going down, and school districts in Lincoln County are planning on having at least some students at school in person.

“We’ve got three weeks before school starts, and each week the infection rate has been dropping,” said Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Superintendent David Marlette. Marlette said this week that RTR would have a little lead time to decide which of three learning models it will start the school year with.

In its planning guide for schools, the MDH recommends schools switch away from in-person classes if COVID-19 rates in their counties rise above a certain level. The recommendations are based on the number of cases per 10,000 people in the county over the past 14 days. If the 14-day number of cases per 10,000 is less than 10, schools can have in-person learning for all students. If the number is 50 or more, the MDH recommends schools use distance learning for all students.

When the MDH released its guidance last week, a few southwest Minnesota counties had relatively high rates of COVID-19 infection. Based on the early numbers, it looked like schools in Lincoln, Murray and Pipestone counties would have to go to distance learning.

However, Lincoln County school superintendents said, the numbers of COVID-19 cases in their county have been going down.

“Those were the first numbers out,” said Dan Deitte, superintendent of Ivanhoe Public School. “I did talk to the MDH on that.”

Updated data from the MDH this week said the 14-day number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people has gone from about 70 down to about 40 in Lincoln County. At that level, the MDH recommends schools use distance learning for middle and high school students, and a hybrid model for elementary school students.

Murray and Pipestone counties have also seen their COVID-19 rates go down. In the most recent data, Murray county had about 33.5 cases per 10,000 people over the past 14 days. And Pipestone County had a 14-day number of almost 48 cases per 10,000 people.

“This is the issue with this, it’s changing every day,” Deitte said of COVID-19 rates. As the numbers of confirmed cases in Lincoln County start to level out, it will be possible for students in Ivanhoe to attend school in person. While the MDH’s guidelines would now recommend a hybrid learning model for Lincoln County schools, Deitte said that wouldn’t mean Ivanhoe students would have to learn from home. The size of Ivanhoe’s student body would make it possible for kids to spread out and follow social distancing while at school, he said.

The Lake Benton Public School is in a similar situation. In messages posted on the school’s Facebook page, both Superintendent Loy Woelber and Principal Jeff Hansen said Lake Benton is planning on having students start the school year under a hybrid learning model. While there will be an emphasis on social distancing, students will be attending classes in person.

“In person and hybrid (learning) will look very similar for our district. It’s the distance learning that I want to avoid,” Woelber said in a July 30 post.

RTR’s school district covers parts of four counties, and has schools in three of them — RTR Middle School in Lyon County, RTR High School in Lincoln County, and RTR Elementary in Pipestone County. Marlette said this week that the planning process for the start of the school year will have to be flexible, and the district will notify families when a learning model is decided on. RTR faces a challenge in that it doesn’t have enough building space for students to have a strict six-foot social distance while in class, he said. A hybrid learning model would mean finding other ways to socially distance.

Marlette said an option similar to Marshall’s hybrid learning plan — where students spend part of the week in class and part doing distance learning — might work for RTR. With many fall sports seasons postponed this year, “That does open some opportunities, too,” he said. If students don’t have fall sports to participate in, he said RTR might have the option to have some students attend class later in the day.

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