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Second-graders at the Rogers Elementary STEM school participate in a musical performance to mark the end of the 2018-19 school year, the last time students had a “last day” in school buildings. Required by the state to implement in-person, hybrid or distance learning plans based on county coronavirus caseload data, the district is holding off on its fall decisions until the next set of data is released on Aug. 20, and will share its decision and the caseload data with parents on Aug. 21. (File photo)

ISD 728 waits on updated data

By Brad O'Neil

The continuing COVID-19 pandemic has forced school districts around the country to make decisions on whether to fully reopen, partially reopen or provide distance learning instruction for the fall 2020 semester. Late last month, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz released Executive Order 20-82 directing Minnesota school districts to work with their county health officials in determined which model or combination of models to use as the new school year opens.

For any district contained wholly within a single county, decisions might be relatively simple. For Independent School District 728, however, which stretches across parts of five different counties, decisions become more complex.

Rogers and Hassan elementary schools, Rogers Middle School and Rogers High School are a part of ISD 728, which also contains elementary and middle schools that feeds into Elk River and Zimmerman high schools.

In a communication to ISD 728 parents and caregivers late last month, superintendent Daniel Bittman wrote, “While it is the intent and desire of ISD 728 to have students back in-person in our classrooms while providing an option for students to participate in distance learning, the Executive Order states ‘school districts must adhere to parameters set forth in the Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 School Year in implementing the three instructional models.’”

The state guidelines are centered around each county’s caseload per 10,000 residents over a two-week period. Under 10 cases per 10,000 residents allows for in-school learning for all students, while 50 or more cases requires distance learning for all students. Intermediate numbers allow for variations as follows:

- 10-19 cases, in-person for elementary students and a hybrid model (some days in school, some days at home) for secondary students

- 20-29 cases, hybrid learning for all students

- 30-49 cases, hybrid for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students

Bittman noted that county data as of the most recent report does not support a district-wide implementation of in-person learning. Therefore, the district will play the waiting game, in order to have the most up-to-date data available before the scheduled beginning of the school year on Tuesday, Sept. 8. The Minnesota Department of Health will be releasing its next caseload report Thursday, Aug. 20, and the district will share both the relevant county caseload data and its resulting determinations for learning plans for each of its schools the following day, Friday, Aug. 21.

“We recognize how inconvenient this late deadline is for families and apologize for the inconvenience,” Bittman wrote. “The Department of Health data will dictate what instructional model ISD 728 must use.”

On Monday, Aug. 17, three days before the final determinative data is released, the district will share information with parents as to what each of the three potential learning models –in-person, distance or hybrid – will look like.

Parents had previously been asked to complete a survey on learning preferences for their child(ren) by Aug. 9. Parents who did not feel comfortable sending their kids to in-person schooling were offered the option of selecting a distance learning plan, regardless of whether or not their child’s school is eventually able to offer in-person instruction. According to the district, making that choice commits the student(s) in question to distance learning through at least Nov. 19, though after that, the student(s) may choose to return to in-person learning if their school is able to offer that model.

“The past several months have been an incredibly challenging time for the entire ISD 728 community,” Bittman wrote. “We look forward to seeing our students again soon, and are grateful to be part of your journey.”

STMA nears decision

By Peg Craig

Following Governor Walz’s Executive Order to school districts at the end of July, St Michael-Albertville School Superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault sent a message to all the parents in the STMA district outlining a plan for providing education to students this fall. Districts are required to make their decisions based on the number of COVID-19 cases in each county per 10,000 people.

Wright County’s ratio in July indicates that early childhood and elementary students can meet in person but secondary students will need a hybrid with strict social distancing and limited capacity.

Foucault listed the guiding principles for their planning as 1) Health and safety of students and staff, 2) What is best for the academic, social, emotional and mental health well being of students and staff and 3) Equity and the needs of all learners. Their planning has used guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health, the Minnesota Department of Education and Wright County Public Health. They have also used feedback from students, staff and families.

The tentative plan is to have Bright Beginnings classes meeting in person for all students who are registered. If coronavirus numbers in Wright County increase, students will be spread out into extra classrooms to limit class size.

Grades kindergarten to fourth will welcome all students every day with students divided into small groups and all spaces in each building used to spread out students and keep six feet between them. Because classes are larger in the middle schools and high school, grades five to 12 will be divided into two groups with one group attending on Monday and Tuesday and one group on Thursday and Friday. They will do distance learning on the other days. Assignments to the groups will be on the basis of last name. These plans may change if the percentage of COVID-19 cases rises.

Families may choose to participate in distance learning only. There will be daily interactions with the teachers and expectations will be the same as for those attending in person. The families are asked to make this decision by Aug. 16 and they will be committed until the end of the first trimester on Dec. 3.

Students will have opportunity to have breakfast and lunch under whatever plan is finally used by the district. If the students are not in school it is likely that the family will have to arrange to pick it up.

In compliance with the executive order, those present in the school buildings or on school transportation will be required to wear masks. A cloth mask will be provided for every student and staff member and disposables will be available in case the cloth masks are forgotten. A medical exemption form will be available in mid-August for those who cannot wear masks.

On Aug. 12, each principal will send an email to their families detailing the learning model for that school along with an enrollment survey which must be returned by Aug. 16 so each school will know who will be attending in person and who will be doing distance learning. On Aug. 21, the district’s decision on the learning model will be shared with families based on newest information regarding COVID-19 spread. School will open on Sept. 8.

Updates will be posted to the district website as they are available.

Rockford prepares amid uncertainty

By Susan Van Cleaf

Rockford Public Schools, Friday, Aug. 7, posted on its website plans for fall schooling in the district – plans that still are surrounded by uncertainty. District officials expect to announce definite information to all families on Aug. 21.

Meanwhile, Superintendent of Schools Rhonda Dean, is asking concerned citizens to provide feedback to the Rockford School Board via a form on the district website at Rockford.k-12.mn.us. The board will look at the feedback at its regular meeting at 6 p.m., Monday, Aug. 17.

“We are committed to re-opening as scheduled,” Dean said in the Aug. 7 website letter to families. However, Gov. Tim Walz has directed school districts across the state to work with county health officials to determine what instruction scenarios should be followed in a specific county and school, based upon number of cases reported per 10,000 population over 14 days.

“It is our intent to provide face-to-face instruction, but the current county data does not support or allow this decision,” Dean said. “As a result, we will need (to) wait for the most up-to-date information to make the final determination on which instructional plan we will be allowed to open with.”

She expected the Department of Health to release this information at 4 p.m., Thursday, Aug. 20.

Dean outlined Department of Health requirements for each learning model. In-person learning could be offered for all students when the number of COVID-19 cases is 0 to 9 per 10,000 population over 14 days. When case numbers range from 10 to 19 per 10,000, the district can offer in-person learning for early childhood and elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students. When the figure is 20 – 29 cases, hybrid learning can be offered for all students.

When case numbers range from 30 to 49 per 10,000 population, early childhood and elementary students could get hybrid learning, and secondary students would get distance learning. Distance learning for all students would be required when 50 or more COVID-19 cases per 10,000 population are reported over 14 days.

The instructional model may change throughout the school year, based upon circumstances in an individual school or county. “No matter which model the district opens with, parents will have the option to choose a more restrictive model, such as Home Based Distance Learning, instead of hybrid,” Dean said.

Each quarter parents will be asked their intent to participate in the Home-Based Distance Learning option. For fall quarter, the deadline for a family to declare its intent is midnight, Friday, Aug. 14. 

Distance Learning for the new school year will look different from last year’s distance learning experience. “For example, there will be daily interactions between students and teachers,” she said. “Grade level expectations will be the same as in the traditional Face-to-Face Model.”

Before providing feedback to the School Board, interested citizens can peruse the 2020-21 Dist. 883 reopening plan that accompanies Dean’s letter on the district website. The 24-page plan has a chapter on Health, Safety and Operations, including physical spaces, health environments, day to day, face masks, symptom screening/isolation rooms, transportation, nutrition services, technology and home based distance learning.

The instructional model chapter features in-person, blended learning, distance learning, special education and social, emotional issues. A third chapter outlines extra/ co-curricular activities.

In the blended learning model, pre-kindergarten through fourth graders would attend school in person five days per week. Grades five through 12 would be divided into two cohorts. Cohort A students would get in person instruction on Mondays and Tuesdays and distance learning on Thursdays and Fridays.

Cohort B students would get distance learning on Mondays and Tuesdays and in person classes on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be used for distance learning and student support.

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