Keeping their students safely in school despite the pandemic was a priority for North Branch Area Public Schools this past year.

During the North Branch School Board meeting June 10, Superintendent Sara Paul went over the accomplishments of the school year that were guided by the district’s goals set at the beginning of the school year.

“When we looked at our initial goal of preparing all learners for success in school and life, one of the things that we really valued was providing flexibility and choice for our families,” Paul said. “We wanted to make sure that whatever was on families’ minds in this very strange year of a pandemic and all the unknowns ahead, that they knew they had two quality choices: being in school or being in a distance learning academy format. ... We’ve really done a great job of really delivering on those two quality options.”

Regarding raising accountability for all staff and programs, a goal for the district was to establish mutual commitments for procedures and protocols to mitigate risk in keeping students and staff safe.

“And that was very evident in a lot of the work that happened here,” Paul said. “People stepping up and really working across different groups in order to make sure that what we had established is what would happen.”

Another goal for the district was to provide predictability of a daily schedule.

“What we did here to provide predictability of a daily schedule and an instructional model really set us apart,” Paul said. “Families did not need to worry on a Friday if they were going to have school on a Monday, or an extended day on a Monday. Those things really meant a lot to our families, and I think it started with setting that goal right away from the beginning of the year.”

Paul gave a lot of credit to community relations coordinator Pat Tepoorten for his leadership.

“His willingness to listen to a lot of different ideas people had about how we could not only give information out but how also we could be positioned to continually receive input and feedback into the system to inform our decisions,” Paul said. “So we had multiple ways that we were able to create those conditions this year and have a lot of success with community engagement.”

Paul discussed the district’s final priority, sharing the responsibility to maximize resources.

“Every district really was looking at a lot of unknowns, changes to enrollment; all kinds of things that can really dampen a budget,” Paul said. “And we not only looked at our resources within our financial resources but our time, and how we used our time. And how we really were deliberate about making sure that the learning experiences we were offering were high quality once we had the opportunity to have students here.”

Paul said the goals remained a priority throughout the school year.

“We really were looking at our goals and constantly looking at how we were learning as a system as we went along the school year. And one of the things that we did right away from the beginning was we followed the guidance of the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Department of Education to a T, because we had no data to lean on. We ended up realizing that we were one of the few school districts that really had less disruptions of having to shift to remote learning coming back relative to those around us. And through all that time we continued to collect data,” Paul said. “And so when the governor started to announce changes regarding the state’s return to normalcy, we took a close look at that data. As we’re looking to closure of the end of the school year, we were very concerned about students having to quarantine and missing out on those relationship building activities that were happening in their classrooms with activities that were happening at elementary, middle school and at high school — most notably prom, graduation, things that really make a difference in the lives of our students — not only for closure academically, but for their social and emotional health as well.”

Paul said when looking at the COVID-19 data from the past year, the district identified 993 students as having close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in thousands of missed school days due to mandatory quarantine. But she noted less than 1% of those 993 students who had to quarantine tested positive for COVID-19.

As for a COVID-19 update, Paul said between May 31 and June 6 the district had four confirmed cases of COVID-19 among students and two among staff. The district had 15 students identified as close contacts, mostly due to busing.

The most current 14-day case rate per 10,000 people as provided by the state of Minnesota, from May 16-29, has Chisago County with a 16.99 case rate per 10,000 people, and Isanti County with a 25.14 case rate per 10,000 people.

Paul said looking at next year, the state has shifted focus to guidance that emphasizes in-person safe learning, and district data will continue to be used to make informed decisions.

“Our students have had more in-school experiences than most kids around the state and country, but the plan is called ‘Return to In-Person Learning,’” Paul said. “And what they’re saying is that if you are a district that has had things in place, you’ve had feedback with community members, input from staff and students, families, you don’t have to do some of the things that districts that have not been in school as long have been doing. So we’re in the process right now of drafting a plan.”

Besides continuing to look at the data to guide next year’s decisions, Paul said the district will continue to look at guidance from state agencies. She said a comprehensive update will be given at the July 8 school board meeting regarding the district’s plan looking forward to the next school year.

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