After holding out longer than other local districts, the St. Francis School District is transitioning secondary students to distance learning this week and plans for elementary students to make the switch after Thanksgiving.
After an emergency School Board meeting the morning of Monday, Nov. 16, the district announced there would be no school for students in middle and high school on Tuesday or Wednesday, and they would start distance learning Thursday, Nov. 19. Elementary students will begin distance learning Nov. 30.
Last week the board had voted 6-1, with board member Mike Starr dissenting, to continue using a hybrid learning model for all grade levels, despite the steep rise in community spread of COVID-19 that led most districts in the county to move secondary students to distance learning at the beginning of the month. The majority of the board felt the district was doing enough to protect students and staff, and the board planned to review the situation again Nov. 23.
Superintendent Beth Giese requested an emergency board meeting when it became clear she wouldn’t have adequate staff to continue offering hybrid learning, because so many staff members were in quarantine.
“Our staffing just got out of control,” Giese said. “It isn’t so much people testing positive for COVID. Whether it’s students or staff, those numbers really are not that high. It’s everyone getting put in quarantine (due to exposure).”
By the end of last week, close to 100 staff members were out with COVID-19 related absences, according to Giese.
“You can just imagine finding that many subs was virtually impossible,” she said.
The emergency board meeting was short, Giese said, because the district didn’t have much choice.
“When you don’t have enough staff to work, there’s not much you can do,” she said.
Community spread of the novel coronavirus is rampant in the St. Francis area. The district said Nov. 16 that the zip codes in its boundaries saw more than 155 new cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 residents during a two-week period. State guidance instructs districts to consider distance learning for all grade levels when the county’s rate is 50 cases per 10,000 residents, but it allows flexibility to consider other local data, such as transmission within schools.
St. Francis High School has seen a total of about 40 cases of COVID-19 among students, and around 300 students were quarantined as of Tuesday, Nov. 17, according to the school district’s COVID-19 dashboard. No elementary school had seen more than 10 total cases as of Nov. 17.
Despite the transition, Giese said the district is offering opportunities for students to have some in-person experiences. As long as it has the staff available, the district plans to allow students to sign up for in-person science labs or for time in the Saints Manufacturing workshop.
“We know that safety is a big deal, and we’re trying to keep everyone safe, but we also know that sitting in your basement on your computer from the time you get up to the time you go to bed is not healthy either,” Giese said.
Although the focus now is on moving to distance learning, Giese said superintendents across Anoka County want to know how they’ll bring students back to class.
“We really need a reentry plan,” Giese said. “We are really asking MDE (the Minnesota Department of Education) to give that to us, because our parents want to know, and we want to give them something. ... I really want to know how are we bringing people back. ... No one can answer that question.”
Learn more about the St. Francis School District’s distance learning transition plan at tinyurl.com/yxcqsc37.