Shirley Hills back to shool 2019.jpg

Shirley Hills and Hilltop will see their students return to the classroom this fall. Pictured: first day of school at Shirley Hills, 2019. (Elizabeth Hustad/Laker Pioneer file)

Westonka school officials received Aug. 20 the updated health data around COVID-19 that provided the final approval for reopening its school buildings for the first day of school Sept. 8.

Guided by county 14-day case counts per 10,000 population, as well as state recommendations and requirements, the Westonka school board had approved the district’s fall start plan at its Aug. 10 meeting, opting for a fully in-person delivery at its two primary schools and for a hybrid model of in-person and distance learning at both its middle school and high school.

“I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to welcoming back our students and staff for the 2020-21 school year. It has been a long road to reopening, but our district is prepared and excited to launch what we hope to be a safe and successful year,” wrote Westonka superintendent Kevin Borg in the “Borg Report,” posted Aug. 20 to the district website.

The Aug. 20 data from the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) covers the total number of reported cases for the period July 26 through Aug. 8 and shows a slight improvement over the previous two-week period (July 19-Aug.1) with the number of cases per 10,000 dropping from 23.77 to 21.97.

That recent case rate is similar to the one that had guided Westonka officials during the second week in July when they met with representatives of MDH and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to determine best course of action in the district’s fall start plans. The case rate had fluctuated upward in the intervening weeks before dropping back in late July and early August.

The district has now also provided more details around how it will handle any positive cases of COVID-19.

For Shirley Hills and Hilltop, the district’s two primary schools, a positive case from either a teacher or a student would likely result in the entire classroom’s quarantine as well as its move to distance learning for two weeks “due to the length of time students remain in the same cohort throughout the day and the tendency for younger students to break social distancing,” according to the Aug. 20 “Borg Report.”

By contrast, students at Grandview Middle School and Mound Westonka High School would quarantine and transition from hybrid learning to a solely distanced delivery only if they were in close contact with a known positive case for more than 15 minutes or if they had direct exposure to someone who tested positive.

The district plans to notify all families of students enrolled at a school where there is a positive case and, for those with students enrolled in hybrid learning, to include in that communication whether a student who tested positive was part of the “A” group or “B” group. Further, families of students who have had close contact with someone who tests positive would be notified individually.

Westonka officials will be monitoring COVID-19 data alongside MDH, and the district has formed a local support team comprised of superintendent Borg, the district nurse and a committee of the school board to monitor the local-level impact of the pandemic, further urging families to have “contingency plans” in place for if and when the district may have to switch to a more restrictive learning model for its students.

12.4 PERCENT “OPT OUT”

As of Aug. 18, the families of 312 students enrolled in the Westonka school district had opted for distance-only instruction through the first quarter of the coming academic year.

MDE is requiring public school districts in the state to offer families a distance learning-only option this fall, regardless of which delivery model school officials choose for starting the year.

Westonka’s “opt out” number represents just under 12.4 percent of the district’s total projected enrollment of 2,521 students for the 2020-2021 school year, with the greatest proportion of distance learning being pursued by primary school students who otherwise would be in the classroom fulltime.

Numbers provided by the district show that 143 of 992 students, or 14.4 percent, enrolled at Westonka in grades K-4 will be starting the year with distance-only education. By contrast, 11.4 percent of students in grades 5-7 and 10.1 percent of students in grades 8-12 will be enrolled in distance-only education through the first quarter.

The number of families that opted out of all in-class instruction for quarter one reflects only a slight deviation from a recent survey that school officials had sent to families while in the process of deciding how to start the 2020 academic year.

About 14 percent of that survey’s 1,248 respondents had indicated they were not comfortable with their child’s return to school buildings this fall. About 60 percent of these respondents had at least one child enrolled in grades K-4, while 32 percent had a child enrolled at Grandview and just under 45 percent had a child enrolled at the high school.

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