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Lyon Co. schools will stay in hybrid learning

File photo Marshall Middle School students return arrive for classes on Sept. 9.

MARSHALL — This week, school guidance data from the Minnesota Department of Health showed Lyon County had COVID-19 case rates high enough to possibly warrant a switch to distance learning. However, administrators at Lyon County school districts said things aren’t really changing for their students.

“We knew that number was coming,” said Marshall Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams. Williams said the MDH’s numbers reflected a short spike in COVID-19 cases at the end of August, and current rates have gone down. Based on discussions with state and area public health agencies, MPS will remain in a hybrid learning model, he said.

Other school administrators from around Lyon County also said their schools’ current learning models won’t be changing in response to the spike in COVID-19 rates.

State guidance recommends that school districts switch to distance learning if their county has 50 or more COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people over the past two weeks. MDH data released Thursday said Lyon and Yellow Medicine County, along with Blue Earth, Stevens, Waseca and Winona County, had reached that threshold. Lyon County had a rate of 53 cases per 10,000 people for the two-week period between Aug. 23 and Sept. 5, while Yellow Medicine County had a rate of 55 cases per 10,000 people.

But school administrators in Lyon County said the decision of whether to send students home is more complicated than that. Williams said the MDH recommendations were “a starting point” for schools to consult with their local public health agencies and the MDH.

School administrators also said they were trying to make decisions based on more current information than the MDH’s two-week time frame.

“The tricky part about those numbers is all that data is two weeks old,” said Minneota and Ivanhoe Superintendent Dan Deitte.

Williams said the Lyon County numbers reflect a four-day spike in COVID-19 cases, with some connected to a cluster of cases from a wedding reception in Ghent in late August.

August spike

The Aug. 22 wedding reception at KB’s Bar and Grill in Ghent was linked to COVID-19 cases in multiple Minnesota counties, with people ranging in age from 10 to 84 testing positive, the Minnesota Department of Health said last week. On Thursday, MDH information officer Doug Schultz said a total of 77 cases of COVID-19 were linked to the event. One person was hospitalized, but is now out of the hospital, he said.

Schultz said the MDH is continuing to look into possible secondary exposures linked to the event.

Southwest Health and Human Services conducted an inspection of KB’s Bar and Grill after the wedding outbreak, said Jason Kloss, environmental health manager at SWHHS. According to SWHHS’s inspection report, the wedding party was held in the ballroom, separate from the restaurant. Owner Mark Staufacker reported that while KB’s employees were wearing masks that evening, few other people at the event were. He also reported signs saying masks were to be worn inside the ballroom were torn down from the doors by someone during the reception.

Kloss said KB’s owners have changed their COVID-19 procedures to take more control of the number and spacing of tables and chairs available for ballroom rentals. Because of this, SWHHS is not taking further enforcement actions against KB’s, Kloss said. However, they will continue to monitor the business for compliance, he said.

Lyon County has a cumulative total of 634 positive COVID-19 cases and four deaths. The most recent death, a person in their eighties, was reported by the MDH on Sept. 12.

Schools plan for COVID

Area school administrators said this week that they weigh a variety of factors in deciding whether to change learning models. Besides looking at current case numbers and MDH guidance, other factors schools are monitoring include the location of any outbreaks, whether schools will have enough staff to teach and take care of students, and whether COVID-19 is spreading within the school, said Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske.

In a letter to families on Friday, Williams said MPS will stay in its hybrid learning plan, where students spend three or four days a week in class and the rest learning from home, to allow for social distancing in school buildings.

Williams said MPS is internally tracking the number of students and staff who go into quarantine for COVID-19 exposure, while the MDH tracks the number of positive COVID-19 cases. Since the start of the school year, 0.27% of MPS’s total school population have reported positive tests, Williams said.

Deitte said Minneota Public Schools will remain in a hybrid learning model for both elementary and high school students. That means Minneota is actually less restricted than it was at the start of the year, when a COVID-19 exposure affecting school staff led the district to postpone the start of class and begin the school year with high school students in distance learning.

Deitte said Minneota Public Schools has had a couple of students or employees go into quarantine since the beginning of the school year. However, he said that was something the district was expecting would happen at some point.

Lakeview Superintendent Chris Fenske said his district would remain in a hybrid learning model. Lakeview could have started the school year with students returning to class as normal, he said, “But our feeling was to start with tighter protections early on.” Fenske said school staff were emphasizing hand washing and wearing face masks at school, and were working with public health “on an almost daily basis.”

Lynd School Principal Jason Swenson and Russell-Tyler-Ruthton Superintendent David Marlette said their respective school districts are also staying with a hybrid learning model. Tracy Area Schools also started class last week with a hybrid model.

While most public schools in Lyon County said they wouldn’t be switching to distance learning as a result of the spike in COVID-19 cases there, the Yellow Medicine East School District opted to switch learning models for its students starting this week. On Sept. 10, YME school administrators announced to families that students in elementary school would be reporting to school for hybrid learning, while students in grades 6 through 12 would switch to distance learning. After school activities for cross country, girls tennis, volleyball and football would not be held either.

In a letter to families, YME administrators said the decision to change learning models came after consulting with Countryside Public Health and the Minnesota Department of Health. The discussions considered the 14-day COVID-19 cases and daily positive case numbers for the area, as well as the number of active cases in the area.

In a Thursday update, administrators said they will reconsider YME’s learning models next week.

Yellow Medicine County has reported its second death from COVID-19. The Minnesota Department of Health said Friday that a person in their 90s had died. Yellow Medicine County is now at a cumulative total of 144 positive COVID-19 cases.

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