UPDATED: 11:22 a.m., Nov. 13, 2020

Westonka will join neighboring school districts in moving to a solely distance learning model beginning Nov. 23.

Superintendent Kevin Borg made the call in conjunction with members of the district’s regional support team late Thursday, Nov. 12. The district has been working with representatives from Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education to monitor the public health situation around COVID-19. Communication was posted to the district website and sent to families Thursday.

The shift shows just how quickly things can change in this environment. Borg had addressed school board members Monday in a cautious tone, but at that time a transition to distance learning wasn’t yet in the works.

But Hennepin County posted Thursday a case rate of 57.6 per 10,000 population, up from 37.9 the week before. The southwest suburban case rate also increased significantly, from 29.6 to 49.4.

“Over the past week, we have seen incredible increases in COVID-19 cases in the Westonka area, as well as school cases impacting our learning environment,” wrote Borg in his weekly Borg Report, which can be found on the district website.

“In the last week, positive cases led to four primary school classrooms being placed in quarantine, as well as one athletic team, two buses, multiple staff, and several outside-of-school close contacts,” he wrote. The district had 315 students and 15 staff in quarantine as of Nov. 13. “Rising case numbers are making it increasingly difficult to provide appropriate staffing and a consistent learning experience.”

Westonka has planned for current learning models (hybrid for middle and high school students and fully in-person learning for primary students) to continue through next week with the shift to distance learning to take place starting Monday, Nov. 23.

The district plans to remain in a distance-only education model through at least Jan. 3. A learning model consultation with MDE and MDH officials has been scheduled for Dec. 21 to determine what may happen after winter break.

No change to athletics or community education has been made at this time.

More information can be found in the Borg Report at https://www.westonka.k12.mn.us.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: The below article is no longer accurate, and was written before the announcement last evening (Nov. 12) that the learning models would be changing.

Westonka Schools made it a full quarter minus a day before the need arose to quarantine a full classroom due to COVID-19. District officials made the call Friday, Nov. 6 to quarantine a class at one of the district’s elementary schools.

Between that Friday and the following Monday, Nov. 9, three additional classrooms and one athletic team were also in quarantine due to positive cases of COVID-19.

Kevin Borg, Westonka superintendent, updated school board members the evening of Nov. 9 on the public health situation in the district and cautioned that although local level data around COVID-19 has presented a better picture than it has for Hennpin County as a whole, the southwest metro—Westonka included—is “showing some similar trends.”

Last Thursday, Nov. 5, the positive case rate in Hennepin County was 34.25 per 10,000 population, compared to 29.5 in the southwest suburbs. This week’s data, due out Nov. 12, was released after Laker Pioneer went to press.

Local-level case rates have consistently fallen below the county’s, but rates have been rising steadily for both the county and the local area since late August. Rising case rates in neighboring Wright and Carver counties have also been recorded over the past several weeks.

“We can be so proud of how we started, but as the community’s positive cases increase our ability to control this in school gets more difficult,” said Borg. Borg said the need to transition learning models in Westonka schools gets “closer and closer to reality” as community spread increases and the district sees more need to quarantine whole classooms. The district currently has elementary students engaged in fully in-person learning and middle and high school students following a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning.

“We still look at the community impact; but it’s the ability of how you staff your buildings, it’s the number of positive school cases, it’s looking at spread that’s happening in school and it’s really looking at the number of quarantines,” Borg said of how that decision to transition would be made.

School officials have been working closely with representatives from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) as they determine how and when a transition may have to be made. Administrators continue to balance education and health with a priority on in-person learning and intend to get some kind of benchmark from MDH “on the front end” for when the district could move back to current models if a more restrictive model does become necessary, said Borg.

The district has added to its website a COVID-19 dashboard, updated every Wednesday to reflect total positive cases as well as the number of cases detected over the past week. When the dashboard first went live just over two weeks ago, total cases stood at three with one new case over the recent week. Those needles moved to seven and four, respectively, on Nov. 4, and Borg projected that this week was likely to push those numbers to 17 and 10.

“The positive news is that to our knowledge we do not have positive transmission in school,” said Borg. The four classrooms that have had to quarantine were at Shirley Hills and Hilltop but nothing pointed to any of the cases being related. “There’s unique stories behind these situations,” he said.

Borg said that as yet there is no need to transition to a more restrictive learning model at any grade level, and students began the second quarter Nov. 10 in the same learning models as those in which they started the year.

The number of families opting for distance-only education this quarter showed minimal change over quarter one. Accounting for all grades, 357 students at Westonka will be pursuing the distance-only option this quarter compared with 378 students who chose this option for quarter one. Adjusted to current total enrollment numbers, 14.6 percent of students are going distance-only in quarter two compared to 15 percent of students in quarter one.

Enrollment in the district fell by an additional 10 students between Oct. 1 and Nov. 1, bringing total enrollment to 2,400 students, about 120 fewer students than initially accounted for in Westonka’s adopted budget, although the district could pick up a few students as the year progresses. A revised enrollment projection for end of the school year shows the district’s potential loss at just 82 students.

Borg said that Westonka’s drop in enrollment has aligned with that seen in other metro area districts, which have so far averaged a 1-4 percent loss this year.

The state legislature is going into its sixth special session of the year later this month and on the table is the possibility that school districts will be able to use last year’s enrollment figures for budgeting, which could palliate some of the impacts of lower enrollment. Otherwise, said Borg, Westonka may have to look at doing a fund transfer or utilizing district reserves when the board approves the revised budget in February.

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