While most students in the Stillwater Area Schools district started the year learning in a hybrid model, secondary learners will move to distance learning to start their second term.
Due to the fast rising COVID-19 rates within Washington County, the Stillwater Area Public Schools Board of Directors changed the district’s learning model to online education for middle and high school students.
Following an hours-long, robust discussion, at the board’s meeting on Nov. 5, members voted 5–2 to move secondary education students to distance learning.
School board members Bill Gilles and Tina Riehle voted against the change.
“This is nuts,” Gilles said. “Schools should not be the first thing we close.”
Government should be closing bars and college dorm rooms first, he said.
Gilles argued students are much safer in schools than anywhere else in the county, and that paraprofessionals were the ones getting the coronavirus than teachers and students.
While the numbers presented by interim superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt showed paraprofessionals are contracting COVID-19 more than other district staff, she that was only one aspect to consider when changing learning models.
The other factors to take in to account include staffing coverage, student attendance, health and safety operations and school services.
All of those factors were heavily impacted during the past few weeks at the secondary education level, Lansfeldt said. She added district health workers are working constantly to perform contact tracing, the district is seeing students having to quarantine — and on the day of the board meeting, the high school ran out of substitutes. High school teachers were having to use their prep time to cover classes.
Stillwater Area School teacher Josiah Hill has seen firsthand the effects from the county’s increase in COVID-19 rates.
During public comments Hill, also the St. Croix Education Association, union president, urged the board to move its secondary learners onilne
“We must follow the guidance of our medical experts, not just the voices who are the loudest,” Hill said.
At the meeting on Nov. 5, Lansfeldt noted Washington County’s case rate was 58.58 positive tests per 10,000 people during the previous 2-week period. The recommendation from the Minnesota Department of Education is to have all learners move to distance learning when the number rises above 50.
“Within our county … we expect our rates to continue to go up,” Lansfeldt said.
At the SAPS Board on Oct. 22, the case rate 32.65.
While the plan is to keep elementary students in hybrid learning as long as possible, the board will continue to look at COVID-19 rates and see if a change will be needed at upcoming meetings.
Lansfeldt explained what it would take to move secondary education back to a hybrid learning model:
The district must wait a minimum of two weeks from start of distance learning before bringing students back for hybrid learning.
District staff will consult with local health officials, MDH and MDE to determine if the situation warrants returning to hybrid learning.
The district started the school year with all students learning in a hybrid model alternating in-person instruction on different days for students enrolled in the district’s “On the Dial” program. A few families will be unaffected by the change as students chose the district’s 100% online learning option.
While the new learning model moves “On the Dial” secondary students online, athletics and activities will keep operating as scheduled while continuing to follow Minnesota State High School League safety guidelines.
There also a few exceptions for some special education students who will remain in hybrid learning.
Board Chair Sarah Stivland asked the board to address members why they voted to keep sports, while moving education online. She noted that it’s much harder to transition athletics online than it is academics.
“It’s just about the balance,” Stivland said. “It’s not going to last forever.”
Stivland read a note from a high school hockey player who pointed out that while they students can learn through Zoom. Hockey players can’t play on Zoom
While board agreed to move secondary education online, all members agreed it was a difficult decision.
“It’s a no-win situation,” board member Jennifer Pelletier said. “There are a lot of factors in play here,”
The first day of distance learning will start on Nov. 16 to coincide with start to the district’s second school term.