After a nearly two-hour special online meeting of the Osseo School Board last Friday night, the time finally came for a vote on whether to move to a Distance Learning model due to rapidly increasing positive coronavirus cases. During the roll call vote, each of the six-member boarded voted in favor of the measure – each sporting a defeated look on their face.
“This weighs heavy on our hearts,” said Jackie Mosqueda-Jones, who recently was voted onto another four-year term on the Board. “We have heard a lot about models for the last six months. We have a lot of students and staff who are very sick. I’m not okay with allowing people to keep getting sick because we want to hit a certain threshold. I want to say thank you (to the administration) for listening to all the public health experts and tell the community to be extra-super careful in the next week.”
The 6-0 vote means that all the schools in the district will move to full-time Distance Learning on Monday, Nov. 23, with the last day of in-class learning – for now – set for Thursday, Nov. 19. The district had been operating in distance learning for secondary students, with elementary students attending school twice a week in a hybrid model.
“All people in this district want to be back in school,” Superintendent Cory McIntyre said. “It’s where our children and our staff thrive. But right now, health matters are winning out. We are not canceling school. We are just going to distance learning.”
The decision was made not only because of the virus, but also because of district-wide staffing issues. McIntyre reported that out of 330 substitutes available to the district, only 105 have worked since school started. Substitute fill rate is normally about 85%, but it’s currently at 50%.
Sixty-three teachers and 43 Education Support Professionals have been absent, seven district sites have experienced 10% or higher absentee rate, including one at 30%.
“As we entered this week, we were optimistic the substitute shortage would decline, but unfortunately, it’s actually increased,” District Human Resource Director Laurel Anderson said.
“The fact that we’ve had so many staff absent and that’s it’s a 10-day quarantine if you contract the virus, that puts a lot of stress on our buildings,” McIntyre said. “We’re approaching the tipping point where many of our buildings simply can’t operate. We’re also seeing a significant jump in positive cases rather than a steady increase, and those predictions are predicted to continue to rise.”
Though districts do have the ability to “pick and choose” what buildings could be shut down based on number of cases, the positivity rates laid down by the state’s Safe Learning Plan puts Osseo well into the category of Distance Learning.
As of Nov. 2, the most recent data from Hennepin County shows a positivity rate of 57.6 per 10,000 residents, which is significantly higher than the 37.9 released on Oct. 26. The state recommends districts over the 50 mark go to Distance Learning.
As for district cities, Brooklyn Park saw a nearly 20-person increase to 78.5 per 10,000 people. Brooklyn Center increased from 61.5 to 74.8, Maple Grove to 68.4 from 41.8, and Plymouth from 35.2 to 51.8.
DECISION HAD TO BE MADE
Board members seemed resigned to the fact this was the only decision, noting the strain will put on everyone involved.
“This is a really challenging situation. It’s no secret that the best thing for our students is to be in school and I feel very strongly about having them in school,” Board member Heather Douglass said. “I also know that’s no longer feasible at this time. As heartbreaking as that is, that’s the reality we’re in. It’s difficult and it’s scary for our kids.
“These young kids are going to be seeing changes and not necessarily knowing why this is happening. They just know they can’t go to school anymore. It’s a hard place for us to be. We just have to operate the safest way we can. When we don’t have the staff to operate a building safely, we can’t continue with a hybrid model.”
“The pandemic has really turned the spotlight on how critical our education system really is. It’s exasperated our greatest inequities and our shortcomings,” Board member Tanya Simmons said. “It’s also exasperated the joy and happiness has when our students go to school. Our staff has made the most of every single moment they’ve been with students at every level, and with our communities and our athletics. It’s parallel to none.
“It’s very emotional of what’s to come and what this pandemic has done to our society. I feel like it’s divided us, but I think in the end it will bring us together and we’re going to improve our education system because of it.”
Simmons commended everyone involved with doing whatever possible to make the best of the situation and added her and her colleagues will continue to take extreme measures to improve the situation.
“This is been a heroic effort at this time,” Simmons said. “I think it’s important to show appreciation for what’s been accomplished. A decision to move these is going to be a struggle for kids and families. We understand what we’re hearing from families. It’s going to mean that parents can’t work. This definitely has significant consequences, but we need to look at this through every lens possible. When you see your kids say ‘We want to go to school,’ it’s really hard. So we need to keep doing the best job we can with this.”
For McIntyre, it was yet another difficult step – especially without knowing where exactly the top of the hill is.
“I believe we are prepared for distance learning,” McIntyre said. “I feel like a bit of a broken record and that change is the only constant.”
VOTING RESULTS APPROVED
Also on Friday, the Board certified the results of the Nov. 3 election. Re-elected to the Board were Douglass and Mosqueda-Jones. They’ll be joined by newcomers Tamara Grady and Thomas Brooks. Grady was elected to a four-year term in the General Election, and Brooks won a two-year term in the Special Election to replace a vacated seat.
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