Ahead of young learners returning to school in person this month, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board on Monday, Jan. 11, heard an update on how the district is handling the transition.

To mitigate the potential spread of COVID-19 the district will implement a rolling start for returning students. Pre-kindergarten through second-grade and some other student populations allowed under state guidance will start Jan. 19, followed by third- through fifth-graders on Feb. 1. Sixth-grade students will return to a hybrid model Feb. 1.

The changes come after Gov. Tim Walz announced new guidance last month for schools allowing young students to return to in-person learning as well as the resumption of student athletics.

While secondary students are still in distance learning, some at-risk students, such as those who are experiencing homelessness, who are in foster care or who are struggling academically will be prioritized for in-person learning. Those students will be able to return to in-person learning without the district having to get permission from the regional support team, which is made up of representatives from the departments of health and education.

For example, the regional high school, which focuses on at-risk students, will open in the next two weeks, Superintendent David Law said.

As for personal protective equipment, the state is requiring face coverings, such as masks, and encouraging face shields. The district has face shields available for every employee that will have students, Law said. A plastic barrier between staff and students during small-group instruction is encouraged as well, which the district has ordered.

“That would be the safest way for staff to protect themselves from students and contagions,” Law said.

Anoka-Hennepin will administer a saliva test to staff every two weeks on Mondays beginning Jan. 25. The tests should take 15-20 minutes, at no cost to the recipient. The tests are voluntary, and the results are private, according to board documents.

Anyone who has been in close contact with someone who has a positive test result, tested positive themselves or had symptoms should not come to school to take the test, according to board documents.

Co-curricular activities are allowed, as of Jan. 4. During indoor activities all students are required to wear face masks with the exception of those in wrestling, swimming and cheer. Competitions began Jan. 14 with limited spectator attendance.

“Our co-curriculars are allowed to run as long as they are not going to be seen as a delay in bringing all of our students back,” Law said.

Meals for distance-learning families are still available. Families can pick up five days’ worth of meals 4:30-6:30 p.m. on Mondays from their high school.

Impacts of COVID-19 on first trimester

After discussing the plans for returning some students to in-person learning, Law presented data on how the first trimester was impacted by COVID-19 restrictions.

At the beginning of the year, across all grade categories, approximately 30% of students opted for full-time distance learning, while about 70% opted for hybrid models. District data showed a correlation between how many students in a school chose full-time distance learning and how many students were on free or reduced-priced lunch. That correlation also exists between full-distance and students of color.

For example, six schools with 20% or less of the student population on free or reduced-price lunch saw about 20% or fewer of their students choose distance learning. On the other had, an elementary school with just under 80% of students on free or reduced-price lunch saw approximately 55% of students choose full-time distance learning, according to district data. None of the schools was specifically identified in the data available.

A similar line can be drawn when breaking down schools by the percentage of students of color versus the percentage of students in full-time distance learning.

“I can’t hypothesize why,” Law said. “I’ve been told by some of our staff of color that this is directly related to the higher representation of families of color in COVID cases in the county.”

Assessments given in the fall indicate that student performance has dropped during the pandemic. The percentage of students meeting early reading benchmarks decreased between 2019 and 2020, as did math proficiency for grades two through eight.

Math proficiency has dropped by 2-4 percentage points each year between 2017 and 2019, but it dropped eight points between 2019 and 2020. Law noted that the district has recently changed its math curriculum due to the previous decline. Reading proficiencies for the same grades held steady between 2019 and 2020, according to district data.

The percentage of As, Bs, and Ds given for classes all decreased between 2019 and 2020. Cs remained steady, but the number of Fs given tripled, from 3% to 9% of grades given, over the same time period.

The percentage of students failing a single course increased from 12% to 22%. Students failing two or more courses increased from 5% to 13%.

“This is definitely a sign that students in distance learning struggle academically much more than in person,” Law said. “Which is part of the reason we’re looking to bring our students back.”

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