Pine River-Backus School: District opts for hybrid learning plan amid rising COVID-19 numbers

Pine River-Backus students in grades K-6 will attend school in-person; grades 7-12 will attend classes online with in-person options for students who need extra help

prb school sign
Echo Journal file photo.

While Pine River-Backus School District administration had been hoping and planning to bring all PR-B students back into the physical classrooms every day of the week this coming school year, the school board chose a hybrid learning plan Monday, Aug. 17, to avoid almost inevitable last-minute changes after the school year starts.

Superintendent Jon Clark said the administration's decision to recommend the hybrid model came because Cass County is currently just under the threshold for COVID-19 cases where schools would be required to use a hybrid or online-only model. With the numbers increasing, it was likely that the district would eventually have to make that decision anyway. The decision was made now so that parents can plan accordingly and not be surprised.

Clark also noted that Cass County, or the local community, would need to have a drastic increase in COVID-19 numbers to be forced to switch to the online-only model, meaning the district is unlikely to change to an online-only model at any point.

Put simply, PR-B's hybrid model brings all students in grades K-6 to school for physical classes, while secondary students will take classes online. That description is, however, an over simplification. The model has a great deal of flexibility and strategy to make it work and make it comply with state mandates and guidelines.

  1. Students in grades K-6 have the option of distance learning if they are not comfortable with in-person classes.
  2. Those who choose distance learning can return to the physical classroom if they change their minds.
  3. Students in grades 7-12 will attend actual classes digitally. This will look more like attending a regularly scheduled class online via Zoom and less like the distance learning from spring 2020.
  4. There will be in-person options for students in grades 7-12 who need extra help, or for whom the digital classes simply are not working. The school has three teams working to identify students who may benefit from this.
  5. Fridays during the school week will be scheduled flex days for students attending digital classes. During this time students may schedule times to come to school and meet with teachers physically for help with assignments, or simply for other communication needs.
  6. There will not be enough time on Fridays for every student to come back to the school, so students may have to alternate from week to week, and need to schedule time.
  7. The transportation director is working on a plan to allow students who choose to meet with teachers on Fridays to ride buses to the school if those students schedule a ride before the end of the day Wednesday. Those students may have the option to ride a bus back home before the end of the day while drivers are delivering meals.
  8. The school district will continue to offer child care to qualifying children of essential workers.
  9. Class sizes will be smaller to allow for social distancing. Specialty teachers such as those who normally run physical education, music or STEAM classes will teach general education classes to allow the district to provide these smaller classes and to run distance learning classes.
  10. Secondary students will not necessarily be required to sit at their computer for the full class day. Once teacher lectures are finished and assignments are given, students may work independently in a more comfortable setting if they choose. However, it is recommended the computer remain on so they can return at any time to participate in classroom discussion or to ask teachers questions.
  11. Many special education students will attend classes four days a week in person, as needed. Some lessons, such as speech therapy, may be possible electronically.
  12. Buses will have capacity for 20-30 students maximum depending on how many family units are on the route, as family members are not required to socially distance from one another.
  13. The district will not do any diagnosis of COVID-19. If a student becomes ill with symptoms similar to COVID-19, a school nurse may make a recommendation to a family to get tested.
  14. The district will continue to provide meals to families with students not attending physical classes. Standard lunch fees may be included.
  15. Distance learning students will now work exclusively from Schoolology, and the district as a whole will use the same lesson plan format to make it easier for families to navigate and use online resources.
  16. Parents should consult for information pertaining to the upcoming school year.
  17. Parents are directed to avoid speculation and assumptions online and call their building principals directly with any questions or concerns. Much of the information available online is inaccurate and often assumed based on plans from other schools in Minnesota. Other district plans are not relevant to PR-B.

The board also discussed other changes to this year's operations. For one, the only fall sport allowed to move forward is cross-country, which has 24 participants, many from other sports. Pine River-Backus will host a cross-country meet Thursday, Aug. 20, and another on Thursday, Sept. 17. These are the first cross-country meets Pine River-Backus has hosted for many years.
The board also approved, reluctantly, a policy requiring masks in the school. Many board members expressed disagreement with the governor's mask mandate; however, all but board member David Sheley voted to approve a policy at request of the administration.


Katy Botz and other board members pointed out that the district was required to follow the mask mandate whether the board had a policy in place or not. The difference is, with a board policy in place, the administration has official direction from the board rather than enforcing the mandate without board direction. Because the administration requested that the board provide that official direction, the board passed the new policy.

The new policy will automatically sunset in one year's time if not renewed. In addition, because the language of the policy is tied to the governor's mask mandate, it will also automatically end if the governor's mandate ends.

In other business Monday, the board:

  • Agreed to allow High School Principal Chris Halverson, Elementary Principal Rick Aulie, Superintendent Jonathan Clark and Troy Gregory, with the community education office, to act as activities director temporarily as the district's chosen candidate is currently under contract with another district at least until that district finds a replacement. The agreement will last until either the candidate is released from his contract or until Jan. 1, 2021, when the district may once again seek a new candidate.
  • Authorized posting for a bus garage mechanic. After the July meeting, Clark researched how much the district stood to save by doing many repairs in-house and determined it would save an average of $8,000 a year.
  • Accepted the resignation of bus driver Kristina Gutzke.
  • Approved the hiring of Ariana Schendel as long-term substitute teacher.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at

Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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