High school winter sports teams and fine arts activities were allowed to start practices Monday, Jan. 4, and two area school districts are getting more students back into the classroom after a November rise in COVID-19 cases sent many students home to learn.

Pine River-Backus back to pre-Thanksgiving schedule

Pine River-Backus School District is more fortunate than some area schools in that the district has been able to keep elementary school students in the physical classroom this whole school year.

As a result, as of Jan. 4 the district was able to resume the model it operated under until a rise in area COVID-19 cases sent the few in-school high school students home to learn.

"We didn't have a whole lot of changes," said Superintendent Jonathan Clark. "Our elementary was in person five days a week so we don't have a rolling start or anything like that as other districts are looking at doing. Our high school students, the ones that were coming in until Thanksgiving time, are back. They were doing some distance learning because of some staffing issues and they are back in the buildings. We are back to our original plan that we had at the start of the school year."

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The district started the year with the majority of high school students attending classes virtually. Some students were identified for in-person classes, and those were the only students who changed their schedule when the district made adjustments in November.

Clark said the district has made some accommodations that rearrange classrooms and schedules in such a way as to reduce close contact in the hallways.

Otherwise, the district is back to the model it started in fall. So far most changes and unscheduled breaks in the district were due to staffing shortages as individuals went into quarantine. As of now, the district has very few staff or students in quarantine.

"If things are trending this way and we don't see a Christmas spike, hopefully we will be able to start having conversations on how to plan on expanding this," Clark said.

Depending on how other area districts started the school year, other schools will be required to slowly phase in in-person classes three grade levels at a time, two weeks apart. Pine River-Backus' model positioned them in a way that they were able to continue to operate mostly unchanged.

Pequot Lakes expects students to return Jan. 11

Pequot Lakes students in grades K-6 will start back with in-person learning five days a week Monday, Jan. 11. Because of this, there will be no instruction Friday, Jan. 8, to give teachers a transition day.

Grades 7-12 are expected to return in a hybrid model beginning Monday, Jan. 25. At that time, early childhood will also start back.

The hybrid model will be the same as it was in the fall months, with students reporting to school two days per week and learning remotely three days a week. The in-person schedules for each grade will remain the same to “keep things clean and simple” for families.

“We were approved to do that the Friday before the governor made his announcement,” Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm said. “That’s why we can get back a little earlier than some other districts that will have to wait and stagger in three grades at a time. We feel very lucky to be able to get in a little earlier.”

Once students return, the district protocols will be largely the same as they were in the fall. Staff members are required to wear a mask at school, as they were in the fall, but it is “strongly recommended” they wear a face shield as well.

Lindholm informed the Pequot Lakes School Board during its Monday, Jan. 4, meeting that case numbers in the area have dropped to around 50 per 10,000 residents - a welcome improvement, as cases were more than 200 per 10,000 residents prior to the school shifting its learning model.

“We just need cooperation and partnership with our families to make sure we keep transmission lower than what was happening in October and November,” Lindholm said. “We felt like we had very little - if any - transmission going on at school, but there was so much going on in the community that it really affected the staff. We ended up quarantining and isolating way too many people.

“As long as people in the community act appropriately to minimize transmission, we should be OK.”

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.

Dan Determan may be reached at 218-855-5879 or dan.determan@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Dan.