Washington County’s, along with the state’s, COVID-19 case rates have increased dramatically, and with the rise continues high schoolers could move to online instruction.

Interim Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt told the Stillwater Area Public School Board of Directors on Thursday, Oct. 22, that the COVID-19 case rate of 32.65 positive cases per 10,000 people over a 2-week period had increased from 12.40 since the last time the board met. Based on the county’s numbers, the Minnesota Department of Education COVID-19 model recommends that secondary students learn at home.

However, MDE’s recommendation is just one factor to consider when changing learning models.

“Do we have to (change models) immediately? No, but we are being told by the experts it’s probably going to continue to go up,” Lansfeldt said. “We have put this in our plan we would look at this at quarter and semester breaks. “We are looking right now at bringing more information to our Nov. 5 school board meeting regarding secondary (education) and we will be looking at possibly going into distance learning mode if this continues beginning on Nov. 11.”

Nov. 11 is the end of the district’s quarter, and changing models then would help to ease the transition.

Since the board’s last meeting Oct. 22, a special session was scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29 to vote on moving the learning model. However, after the district scheduled the meeting, it received more direction from the Minnesota Department of Education and that special meeting was cancelled, Lansfeldt announced in a letter sent to district parents at 4:16 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 28.

“MDE has provided additional direction to districts to evaluate very specific, localized data to better understand how community rates of COVID-19 cases impact the local schools,” Lansfeldt wrote in her email. “In response to this new information, we are canceling the special school board meeting on Thursday evening and postponing the conversation related to a possible move to distance learning to the Nov. 5 school board meeting.”

District staff will continue work with public health experts from the state and county to understand how issues such as how a recent outbreak in the local prisons will affect the larger community.

“Having this data will help us make a more informed decision,” Lansfeldt wrote. “Our goal is to keep our students safely learning in school with their teachers and classmates for as long as possible. We know many of our families want this as well. We will continue to gather information and work along with health experts to make the very best decision possible.”

At the Oct. 22 meeting, Lansfeldt explained that if there is a large coronavirus outbreak at a classroom or a school, the district may have that school move to online learning earlier before any board decisions are made.

“We will keep families posted,” she said. “We know this is a stress on them. We also know with the numbers going up, we have staff and families getting worried about that.”

The district started the school year with all students learning in a hybrid model alternating in-person instruction on different days for students enrolled in the district’s “On the Dial” program.

“‘On the Dial’ means we can go back and forth between in-person and hybrid and possibly distance learning,” Lansfeldt said.

Just because the district can change the learning model for “On the Dial” learners that doesn’t mean the district should change the models often, she said.

“The last thing we want to do is continually change back and forth and have to transition between learning models so we really want to look at the data,” Lansfeldt said.

If families are worried about the increasing numbers they can have their students opt into the distance learning model at any time, Lansfeldt noted.

Other factors

The other factors to consider when looking at changes to the learning model are the county’s COVID-19 case rate, staffing coverage, student attendance, health and safety operations and school services.

The case rates, staffing and attendance are the biggest factors influencing Stillwater’s district’s decision-making process.

“Those three we are really looking at right now,” Lansfeldt said. “We are seeing some red flags with the COVID numbers, and staffing.”

The district has had difficulty finding enough substitute teachers to cover classrooms because when a staff member has a child with COVID-19, the educator needs to quarantine with the child, and because that staff member is now exposed to the coronavirus they may quarantine for longer possibly for 24 days. Several bus drivers in the district have had to quarantine as well, and the district needs substitute drivers to cover. One more issue with staffing is the health staff is busy conducting contact tracing.

“We need specialized, licensed staff that have that background, and it is becoming quite a job to do this in the evenings, weekends and during the day,” Lansfeldt said. “It’s nonstop.”

In other business

The board approved the purchase of 2,200 Chromebooks to replace aging Chromebooks district-wide for a total cost of $672,100.

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