The Little Falls School Board voted to transition all grades across the district, from preschool to 12th grade, to distance learning, effective Monday, Oct. 26. The decision came, Monday, at the recommendation by Supt. Stephen Jones, who gave several reasons as to why the learning model change is necessary.
Jones said Morrison County Public Health reported a case rate of 75.80 per 10,000 residents on Oct. 19.
“This represents a doubling of case rate numbers in the county in 10 days, since Oct. 9,” he said.
The superintendents of the five school districts in Morrison County — Little Falls, Pierz, Royalton, Swanville and Upsala, meet weekly with Morrison County Public Health officials. Jones said that Morrison County Public Health strongly believes that the case rate number in the county will continue to increase. At the time (Oct. 19) the case rate was reported, all of the antigen (rapid test) results had not yet been calculated into the case rate number.
“It will only force the numbers upward at this point,” he said.
Jones said that while the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), as of Oct. 15, only showed a 14-day case rate of 43.10 per 10,000 residents, MDH is about 10 to 14 days behind the numbers reported and directly released by the Morrison County Public Health. As a result, the 14-day case rate number actually lies at 75.80 in the county, Jones said.
“When we started school in September, there were 45 counties that were zero to 10 on the scale of MDH. This week, there were two, so what you’re seeing isn’t just related to Morrison County. It is certainly a Central Minnesota, rural Minnesota and statewide concern now,” he said.
In addition to the increasing number of positive cases, Jones said there is a continued concern with maintaining adequate and quality staffing in the schools.
“Again, that is through no one’s fault. We have urged people to be cautious whether it is the staff, the students or their families. What normally is flus or sniffles, we err on the side of caution and encourage people to take care of their families first, which creates some voids and gaps for us in trying to serve the kids in an in-person model in the elementary and in preschool and in a hybrid model at the middle school and high school,” he said.
Another reason that influenced Jones’ recommendation is the fact that an increasing number of families of students, especially at the middle school and high school, are choosing fulltime distance learning at this time.
“They are experiencing an anxiety over increasing numbers. Just alone today, 15 (families) moved to distance learning,” he said.
As the number of school-aged children who have tested positive for COVID doubled from 11 to 21 over five days, Jones said it indicates that COVID is beginning to impact children at higher levels than before.
“We’ve seen a recent increase in positive test results among students and staff of Little Falls Community Schools. With that, the contact tracing is capturing more students in this web and forces more students to quarantine,” he said.
While Jones felt he was able to justify the school’s decision to remain in the in-person learning model while the case rate numbers were in the 10s and 20s, the time has come that he said he simply cannot anymore. The safety of their students, staff and families comes first.
“We have talked about this for a week. This is not a snap decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, the other districts in Morrison County continue to monitor their local situations. At this time and at the advice of Morrison County Public Health, Swanville Public School continued their education of all grades in person.
“At this point, we have had no confirmed cases in the school building. No students or staff have been confirmed positive. We have had students and staff quarantine due to close contact with someone who has tested positive,” Swanville Supt. Gene Harthan said.
The Swanville School Board and administration are committed to keeping their students in the building as long as possible, Harthan said.
“This can change as situations change,” he said.
Upsala Public Schools plan to remain in person, as well.
“At this time, based on the low case rates we are seeing in our community, we are continuing our in-person learning plan. We will continue to monitor local case rates and consult with public health officials to assess our status and the potential transition to a more restrictive learning plan,” said Upsala Supt. Vern Capelle.
Supt. John Phelps at Royalton Public Schools said that due to the rising case rate numbers, that fourth and fifth graders along with secondary school students will be moving to a hybrid learning model, while preschool and kindergarten to third grade remain in person, effective Monday, Oct. 26.
Students in 7-12 grades in Pierz are already in a hybrid learning plan. Pierz Supt. George Weber said the plan is to continue with the hybrid model while continuing to monitor what is going on in the district.
The goal is to keep students in grades K-4 in person learning for as long as possible, Weber said.
Little Falls School Board Briefs
In other business Monday, the Little Falls School Board:
• Heard from Mark Diehl, director of Information and Technology Services, that the about 275 hot spots the district ordered for families with no or poor access to internet to use during hybrid and/or distance learning have been working well. To meet the growing need for access, Diehl said more hot spots will need to be ordered. The hot spots are provided by Verizon Wireless and each hot spot has a stronger capacity to provide service to a larger number of students at the same time than a hot spot a parent may have on their cellphone. The district was able to pay for some of the hot spots with the use of CARES ACT funds given to the county, Diehl said;
• Approved payment of the annual fee to the Minnesota State High School League, a total cost of $14,130, which includes two COVID-19 installments;
• Authorized the Wellness Committee to purchase and award gifts/prizes in the amount of $3,200 for the year to be used for the four different fitness challenges that will be held during the 2020-21 school year for staff members;
• Accepted the following donations: $100 from Rebecca Jacobsen Strahl to the Kare Kloset, $500 from Lindsay and Andrew LeClair to the Kare Kloset, $35 from Timothy Peterson and Rhonda Schmidt to the Kare Kloset, $100 from Robert LeBlanc to the Kare Kloset, $500 from Faith Lutheran Church to the Kare Kloset, $12,000 from an anonymous donor to the Kare Kloset, 154 masks of $12/each (total value of $1,848) from Nancy Henderson for the Little Falls Choir, $400 from an anonymous donor to the Lindbergh Elementary Social Work fund, $1,000 from an anonymous donor to the Lindbergh Elementary Social Work fund, $500 from an anonymous donor to the Lindbergh Elementary Social Work fund, $400 from an anonymous donor to the Lindbergh Elementary Social Work Fund, $58 from the Knight Education Association to Dr. S.G. Knight Elementary School for recorders, $500 from an anonymous donor for the Middle School Flyer Gear, $500 from the Friends of the Little Falls Carnegie Library to the High School Scholarship fund and $1,500 from Rebecca Jacobsen Strahl for the Carroll R. Strahl Memorial Education Scholarship;
• Was informed by Diehl the Little Falls School District will purchase high definition cameras from Safety Vision to install on all buses, a cost of less than $50,000, which is covered by CARES ACT money the county received. It is believed the cameras will encourage students to keep their masks on while they ride the school bus. After COVID is over and school returns to normal, the cameras will help with occasional behavior concerns on the buses;
• Denied the leave of absence request made by Laurie Larsen for her previous position while she is currently filling another position in the district. The Board opted to deny the request to avoid setting a bad precedent. Board Member Brad Laager made the example that if she, for instance, would teach special education for three years and the district, for some reason, would need to cut back in that department, her seniority would then allow her to automatically bump back to her previous position. That would mean the person who was hired for her previous position would then lose their job; and
• Approved the Assurance of Compliance with State and federal Law Prohibiting Discrimination form, which is due to the Minnesota Department of Education by Nov. 15.
The Little Falls School Board’s next regular meeting will be Thursday, Nov. 12, at 5 p.m. in the Little Falls Community Middle School media center. The board meeting was moved to another day due to the election and canvassing of votes.