NORMAL: Northern Brainerd lakes area schools strive for a school year free of COVID-19 distractions
Nisswa will be the odd one out, requiring face masks as per the Brainerd School Board's recent 4-1 decision. Pine River-Backus, Pequot Lakes and Crosslake schools are not requiring masks in the school buildings.
Lakes area schools will open their doors to welcome students for the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 7, with high hopes for a more normal school year not sidetracked by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only the Brainerd School District - which includes Nisswa Elementary School - will start the school year with a mask mandate in schools. Whether other area schools eventually require masks, or whether Brainerd schools eventually drop the mandate, depends entirely on how COVID-19 cases spike or don’t spike in the area.
Masks will be required for all students riding school buses because that’s a federal law for public transportation. And anyone who wants to mask up where it’s not required is encouraged to do so.
Following is a rundown of what to expect at area schools as the 2021-2022 school year begins.
Pequot Lakes School District
The Pequot Lakes School District has 10 new teachers and a new interim superintendent in Kurt Stumpf, but students and staff can expect some sort of return to normality, at least at the start of the school year.
“I’m just excited about getting our students back to five-days-a-week, in-person learning,” Stumpf said.
" The No. 1 thing that I would want our community to know is that in order for us to stay in-person for five days a week and provide an awesome experience here at school … is to keep students at home when they are sick, and make sure that they perform daily screening checks at home before school."
— Kurt Stumpf.
The school district seems well prepped for school to begin Tuesday, Sept. 7, and students and staff have already made their way into the building for various activities.
“We had new teachers in for a day (last week) and that went extremely well,” Stumpf said. “Then on Thursday, we had fifth-grade students in for orientation, and we had some outstanding eighth-grade students lead some activities. It was just a great way to introduce some families to the middle school.”
As it currently stands, the district will not make the wearing of masks mandatory at schools - although they will be required on public transportation, per federal mandates. That said, face coverings will still be encouraged within school buildings.
“At this time, we have masks as highly recommended, as that aligns with (the Minnesota Department of Health),” Stumpf said. “We know that working with COVID and navigating this, it is hard to predict what the future holds, but that is the plan.”
However, Stumpf was adamant to remind the public that this health issue is being taken seriously, and encourages everyone to keep other students and staff in mind.
“The No. 1 thing that I would want our community to know is that in order for us to stay in-person for five days a week and provide an awesome experience here at school … is to keep students at home when they are sick, and make sure that they perform daily screening checks at home before school,” Stumpf said. “That would help us tremendously.”
Pine River-Backus School District
Returning students might notice two big changes at Pine River-Backus School, with the first being a whopping 11 new teachers plus additional staff.
"That's kind of exciting," said Superintendent Jon Clark. "We really got some good, talented teachers coming in."
" At this time we're still monitoring everything. We have a mask optional building. We're following everyone else in the federal government with mask mandates on the school bus, but otherwise we want people to make the choices that are best for them and their families."
— Jon Clark.
And while it might not be ready for the first home game of the year, the work on the Pine River-Backus football field's pump house, concessions stand and bathrooms should be complete early in the season.
"By the second (game) we should have everything prepped and ready to go. That's exciting to open that up," Clark said.
Almost as exciting is the return to a normal school format. Pine River-Backus students will have to wear masks on the school bus, as mandated federally; however, students are all returning to a normal, full-time, five-day-a-week in-person schedule and are not required to wear masks in the school building.
"At this time we're still monitoring everything," Clark said. "We have a mask optional building. We're following everyone else in the federal government with mask mandates on the school bus, but otherwise we want people to make the choices that are best for them and their families."
Crosslake Community School
Crosslake Community School will operate with Annette Klang as the interim director of seat-based learning this school year, and with Holly Amaya as the school’s director of online learning.
The school board didn’t receive enough qualified applicants for the director of seat-based learning position, Klang said, and will address the idea of posting for a director again in January.
" Masks are recommended at this time, not required."
— Annette Klang.
The school’s former executive director, Cliff Skagen, and director of online learning, Stacy Bender, both left the school abruptly in March. Skagen resigned from his position, and Bender was terminated from her position.
This school year, Klang said Crosslake School’s enrollment is almost at capacity with 105 enrolled in the seat-based school (grades K-8), which will be in-person five days a week, and 210 enrolled in the online program (grades 9-12). Local students enrolled in the online high school can attend the school’s in-person online learning lab, but they must sign up to do so.
Klang said the school tries to cap classes at 19 students, but the school board authorized increasing that number to 22.
“Masks are recommended at this time, not required,” Klang said, noting that’s always subject to change.
She said area districts, including Pequot Lakes, Pine River-Backus and Crosby-Ironton, have been in contact regarding masking.
The year will feature more outdoor classroom spaces at Crosslake School.
“We’re looking forward to a fun year,” Klang said, “with a few shifts in personnel with retirements and job changes. But it will be exciting.”
Nisswa Elementary School
“I am so excited to get this year started,” Nisswa School Principal Molly Raske said via email. “This past week we had kindergarten testing and kindercamp, and it has been so fun to have our newest students in the building, thrilled to begin their elementary career.”
The school also welcomed Brainerd's newest employees last week and had many curriculum planning meetings, which Raske said brings a renewed energy to the great things they do and plans they have going forward for students.
" Teaching, learning and living in Nisswa is magical, and what we have planned for this year will be nothing short of that,” Raske said. “We are so ready; let's get this year started."
— Molly Raske.
“At this time, our enrollment has been very steady and we cannot wait to see our families at the welcome back picnic on Sept. 1 from 4:30-6 p.m.,” Raske said.
Of course, the school looks forward to all of the "only in Nisswa" events that are planned, as well as music concerts, field trips, the new raised garden area with plans for integrated units using them, for volunteers to be back in the building and much more.
“Teaching, learning and living in Nisswa is magical, and what we have planned for this year will be nothing short of that,” Raske said. “We are so ready; let's get this year started.”
Anyone entering Nisswa School, or any other Brainerd Public School, is required to wear a mask. The Brainerd School Board made this decision on a 4-1 vote Wednesday, Aug. 25.
Exceptions will be made for indoor physical education classes and Minnesota State High School League activities, when masks will not be required while engaging in physical activity, the Brainerd Dispatch reported.
Exceptions may also be made for individuals with identified medical or behavioral needs that prevent them from wearing face coverings.
Students, staff, volunteers and visitors are not required to wear face covers while outdoors for recess, physical education classes, athletic practices/contests or other instructional or recreational activities, the Dispatch reported.
The district is using a decision matrix that outlines the specific thresholds for masking policies during the school year. Those thresholds are based on Crow Wing County’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate, meaning the number of new cases in a 14-day period per 10,000 residents.
Crow Wing County’s 14-day case rate was at about 32 for the two weeks before the board’s decision, putting the district in the category of requiring facemasks indoors for everyone.
By approving the decision matrix, the board gave school administrators the authority to update masking policies without board approval, meaning if the case rate dips below 20, the mask requirement can be lifted without the board having to vote, the Dispatch reported.