Schools appreciate autonomy; future still uncertain
For school administrators, it's been a mixed bag since the Minnesota Department of Education issued recommendations for the fall semester Thursday, July 30.
On one hand, school districts have been given some autonomy to determine whether they will have physical classes on site in the fall. On the other hand, that autonomy isn't absolute and depends on COVID-19 infection rates that keep changing.
Being at the mercy of that changing data means plans aren't final yet.
“Our first reaction was that we are glad that we have some guidance to go on as we move through the scenarios, and we have some numbers to use and help us,” said Pine River-Backus Superintendent Jon Clark. “As we're planning, though, it's hard because it's kind of a moving target right now. What we are looking at today could be completely different tomorrow and definitely two weeks from now. It helps a little bit, but there's still a lot of things up in the air as we move closer and closer. I think our families are looking for some set decisions we just can't give.”
The source of the issue lies with Gov. Tim Walz and MDE guidelines that state schools can hold physical classes at school buildings so long as their county is below a certain threshold of COVID-19 cases. If cases were to rise in Cass or Crow Wing counties, MDE guidelines could change from recommending in-person classes for all students to various degrees of hybrid models. In a worst case scenario, if infection rates were bad enough, MDE guidelines could direct schools in relevant counties to return to distance learning models.
Administration at local schools are, however, happy that the shape of their semester will be determined by local data.
“It made us feel good that we are able to provide for Pine River-Backus students a plan that will serve the Pine River-Backus area,” Clark said. “We didn't want to be tied to the heavier (COVID-19) rates in the metropolitan area. They 're going to have to make their decisions based on that count that we didn't want to be tied to. We feel good that we have some local control and some local guidance. Unfortunately, it doesn't help us make our decision any faster to get the information out to our families.”
Clark felt it would be irresponsible to make an absolute determination on Pine River-Backus' fall semester now and estimated they won't know absolutely until perhaps two weeks before the first day of school, scheduled Tuesday, Sept. 8. However, the school district is so far preparing for a semester with all students in class every day, with some higher risk classes - such as music and band - perhaps left out of the schedule.
The problem is that data is currently changing in Cass County.
“We look pretty good for in-person learning,” Clark said. “That is our goal, to get our kids in here. The most current data with Cass County shows that number creeping upwards a little bit.”
Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm called the system in place a “more sophisticated and reasonable” system than what many other states are implementing, praising the state’s decision to use local data instead of a "one size fits all" approach for every district.
“What I am pleased about in the announcement is that they are using local data to drive the decisions for school districts, instead of just statewide data. I think that's a really good thing for outstate Minnesota and that will definitely allow us to be able to do more, as long as our local community doesn't have a large outbreak and we continue to do the good practices to avoid that,” Lindholm said.
However, Lindholm expressed his displeasure with the governor and Minnesota Department of Health officials not making it clear that while districts control their own processes to an extent, they must still comply with MDH guidelines.
“Any move by a district to go to a less restrictive model than what the state has recommended (based on case numbers) requires Department of Health permission,” Lindholm said. “That was not made clear by the governor, the commissioner and definitely not from a lot of reporting that has been going on.”
Following the announcement, Lindholm sent a letter to district parents asking them to respond promptly if their children will opt for distance learning. He also asked those planning to attend in-person to drive their children, as transportation is likely to be “one of the biggest bottlenecks” in the coming school year.
“With the restrictions, we can really only be carrying 13 to 20 kids on a bus, depending on how many are grouped in a family,” Lindholm said. “We usually run 50 to 60 on a bus. It is going to be a real nut to crack for all school districts. The more folks that can provide their own transportation, the better.”
Last week, Crow Wing County was listed as having 6.11 COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, which would allow for full in-person learning. However, that number has been steadily increasing over the past month.
“That really empowers our community to say, ‘The only way we can be in-person is to keep numbers down, so we better practice good protocol - wash our hands, social distance and wear face masks," Lindholm said. "If that number goes up at the current trend, we won’t be all kids in-person learning when school starts.”
The district will not make a decision until closer to the first day of school Tuesday, Sept. 8, and Lindholm was mindful that whatever decision is made will likely not be the last decision made on the matter this year.
“The numbers will drive the decision, and then there is one week until implementation of a different plan,” Lindholm said. “We are always only going to be one week out for the rest of the year. How we start school is going to be one piece of the puzzle, because the next week we will have to make the decision again.”