Westonka’s middle and high school students are on their way to getting more face-to-face instruction than they received even at the start of the school year last fall.

The district announced Feb. 26 that its secondary students would transition from their current hybrid learning model to an in-person learning model beginning March 16. The transition follows updated recommendations made a week earlier at the state level.

Westonka school officials, including superintendent Kevin Borg, district nurse Kelly Mattson and a committee of the school board, made the decision with backing from its regional support team, which is made up of representatives from local public health and the state health and education departments.

Gov. Tim Walz had announced Feb. 17 that all Minnesota public school districts should firm up plans for offering their students at least some face-to-face instruction by March 8.

“It’s time to get our students back in school, and we can do that now safely,” said Walz during his address. He later tried to allay some fears about the spread of the virus in schools, saying “The one thing we know is, time and time and time again, COVID was not being spread in communities from the school, it was coming from the community into the schools.”

Walz referenced a new road map laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as Minnesota’s teacher vaccination program and “robust” COVID-19 testing system as supportive of his message.

As of Walz’s announcement, more than 25 percent of educators statewide had already been vaccinated against COVID-19, and the governor said he anticipated the majority of all educators would be vaccinated by March 8.

Districts were given the option of offering either hybrid or in-person learning to all grade levels by that March 8 date. Westonka’s K-4 students are already following a fully in-person learning model and have been doing so since the start of quarter three Jan. 20 (preschoolers went back even earlier, on Jan. 6).

Grandview Middle School students and high schoolers in grades 8-10 have been in hybrid learning since that date, with upper classmen having started in hybrid learning Feb. 1 as per the guidance at the time of offering a “rolling start” for bringing kids back to school buildings.

Under the latest announcement from the district, Westonka students in grades 5-12 will return to in-person learning four days a week beginning Tuesday, March 16. Fridays will remain distance learning days. There is no requirement for a “rolling start” this time. Families will still be permitted to choose a distance learning only option.

Regular testing for COVID-19, once every two weeks, is being recommended for all students, regardless of whether symptoms are apparent. “The way you beat it is testing,” said Walz, commenting specifically on the new variants of COVID-19 that have appeared in Minnesota. “Find it quickly and isolate. That is more important now than it’s ever been.”

County and local-level health data, as well as staffing capacity at schools, will continue to guide Westonka’s learning model decisions, and superintendent Borg cautioned in a Feb. 26 post to the district’s website that things can still change quickly, urging families to have contingency plans in place should the district have to return to a more restrictive learning model.

The state is also recommending that districts experiencing an outbreak within a single week of more than 5 percent of its students and staff at any one school building consider moving that building to a more restrictive learning model but that there is “no hard and fast rule.” Borg confirmed in his Feb. 26 post that such an outbreak would trigger a meeting with Westonka’s regional support team for further guidance. 

As of Feb. 25, when the most recent data was made available, southwest Hennepin was registering a 14-day case rate of 20.6 per 10,000 population. The county as a whole was showing a rate of 19.01. Case rates in Hennepin and neighboring Wright and Carver counties have been declining for the past five weeks.

Specifics on Westonka’s learning model transition, including safe learning plans for each of its schools and how to sign up for distance-only learning in quarter four, can be found on the district’s website at https://www.westonka.k12.mn.us/

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