School officials from seven area counties are publicly pleading for their communities’ help regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and spread of the coronavirus in hopes of keeping their learning models in place.

Unlike several other area school districts, the Pequot Lakes and Pine River-Backus districts haven’t yet had to change from the hybrid learning models implemented at the start of the school year because there haven't been severe COVID-19 outbreaks in the schools.

The hybrid learning models have students in grades K-6 attending school five days a week at both Pequot Lakes and PR-B. Students in grades 7-12 at Pequot Lakes report to school on a staggered schedule twice a week, while students in those grades at PR-B are remote learning full time.

On Thursday, Oct. 8, 23 school officials representing school systems from Aitkin to Browerville and Long Prairie to Park Rapids signed the following letter to constituents in Aitkin, Cass, Crow Wing, Hubbard, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties:

“We’re writing to you today to ask for your help.

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“We are four weeks into the year and already schools in our seven-county region have had to adjust their learning models from either in-person to hybrid or hybrid to distance learning due to sharp increases in positive COVID-19 cases. This is disappointing for everyone involved.

“We have been given requirements from the Minnesota Department of Health that we are following, and it is working. Across the state, there has been minimal transmission within schools. However, officials at MDH have said the COVID-19 virus is, for the most part, spreading outside of school - transmission is happening in community settings and at family and social gatherings.

“We want our kids in school as much as possible. You, the great people in our communities, have said you also want our kids in school. We know of only one way that gives us the best chance at safely keeping our kids in school, sports and activities.

“We need your help. This information is nothing you haven’t already heard, but bears repeating as it’s going to take all of us to make a difference. Please - help us keep cases low and our kids in school by following the very clear guidelines offered by MDH:

  • Avoid crowds.

  • Keep family and social gatherings outdoors.

  • Stay 6 feet from others.

  • Wear a mask.

  • Wash your hands.

  • Stay home when sick.

“Thank you for your support and for following the given guidelines. Together, we will do it for our kids! Thank you.”

Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm said via email that as of Monday, Oct. 12, the MDH and Crow Wing County Public Health Department were comfortable with the school district staying in its current learning model.

“The number of new cases in Crow Wing County continues to grow, however, so there is a good possibility that we will need to shift to the hybrid model in all grades in the near future,” Lindholm said. “Our hybrid model for elementary students still has students attending at school everyday, so there would be little change for families in that scenario.”

Jonathan Clark, superintendent at PR-B, said his district also remains in a good place with its COVID-19 plan.

“We have seen a surge in the Cass County rate happening outside of the school. Our goal is to keep things going as they are for as long as possible and always hoping to bring back more students,” Clark said in an email.

“However, we need help to make this happen as case rates are changing rapidly,” he said. “We need to maintain our awareness and practice of healthy decisions that will benefit all of us. Our situation at PR-B can change very quickly by not having enough bus drivers, teachers or support staff to continue our current learning model.”

Lindholm said in a letter to school district families that Pequot Lakes Schools have had just a handful of lab confirmed COVID-19 cases since school began a month ago, and in each case officials have been able to contact trace and contain it successfully.

It is still important to stay prepared to switch to distance learning quickly should a cluster of cases show up in a school, his letter said, noting a cluster is declared when the number of new cases outpaces the ability of the district or the MDH to contact trace and get people quarantined.

The common practice in this situation - such as occurred at Brainerd High School - is a 14-day “reset” period to complete the incubation period and identify those that show delayed symptoms to stop the spread.

The development of a cluster in a school is highly probable to occur at some point in the school year, Lindholm said, noting there is a very strong possibility that all schools in Minnesota will need to shift quickly to distance learning at some point during the year in response to a cluster of new cases or a shortage of staff.

“Superintendents across the state are asking for help from the public to slow the spread of COVID so students can continue to attend school in person,” he said. “We all know learning happens best when students are in school, but our ability to do that depends on everyone staying disciplined, avoiding large crowds, wearing a mask and social distancing. We thank the community for supporting our students and their learning!”

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.