On Feb. 10 — with the exception of Stonebridge Elementary — all students in district primary schools returned to the classrooms for four days of in-person instruction a week.

During the Independent School District 834 Board of Directors’ meeting on Feb. 11 Superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt updated the board on the district’s efforts to bring back students to in-person learning who are enrolled in the district’s On the Dial Program. Kindergarten through second grade students returned to classrooms on Jan. 27.

On the Dial means the school board can change the learning model as COVID-19 numbers fluctuate. When COVID numbers spiked in November 2020, the district sent all learners to remote instruction.

The district started the 2020-21 school year with On the Dial students learning in a hybrid model, alternating in-person instruction on different days.

All families have the option of learning 100% online for the 2020-21 school year, and can switch to that model at any time.

In the new year, the SAPS Board of Directors agreed to start a slow roll out returning elementary school students back to the classrooms with COVID-19 safety measures in place. That was followed by the decision to continue the slow roll out, and have all learners return to the classroom by early April.

Because of an outbreak of COVID-19 in the school, Stonebridge students were sent to emergency online learning for two weeks.

The students were sent to eLearning two days before the third to fifth graders would have come back to the classroom.

“We had our first official outbreak — or spread in a school community — that led to emergency transition to distance learning …,” Lansfeldt said. “We sent out notice to families and staff. “It was a very tough, difficult decision to make, but we did this in collaboration with our regional support team.”

The regional support team is comprised of representatives from the Minnesota Department of Education, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Washington County Health Department. The team recommended the two-week emergency measure to cover one incubation period of the coronavirus.

There were four confirmed cases in students before the announcement, and two additional cases identified after.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot of people, but when you look at the bigger picture we have also had parents that are coming back positive,” Lansfeldt said.

The district had third to fifth grade students in distance learning also come back with positive COVID-19 tests, and there were cases in the district’s before and after-school daycare program.

“So when you start to get one, two, three, cases that you can link — or possibly link to other cases within the school — you need to consider a spread,” Lansfeldt said. “We had more than 90 students quarantined.”

The superintendent reiterated the districts’ mitigation strategies to slow the spread of COVID-19 while students are in person are working, and this outbreak just may not have been preventable.

The safety efforts include keeping student in small cohorts, teachers and other staff members are strongly encouraged to wear face masks and shields at the same time when possible; surfaces are often cleaned; staff and students wash their hands; Plexiglas barriers were installed and three feet of physical distancing between students and six feet between adults is maintained.

Lansfeldt has visited all the elementary schools, and despite the challenges presented by COVID-19, she said kids are excited to be back.

“You can see that they’re happy and they do have the smiling eyes with the mask on,” Lansfeldt said. “It’s great to have them back in the classrooms.”

 Return timeline

The district is continuing to bring students back slowly to the classroom, and on Feb. 16 more than 260 middle and high school students who were identified for extra support for in-person learning returned. On March 1 students in grade six, as well as fourth and fifth grades in the district’s Gifted and Talented students will return.

All seventh and eighth graders are slated to come back on March 15 and ninth to 12th graders are scheduled to return April 5, which is the beginning of the district’s fourth quarter.

In addition to returning students to the classroom, there is some hope that a school prom will get held this year,” Lansfeldt said.

“There’s a lot of activities going on in the background,” she said. “More information to come, but I’m excited to hear that.”

Board response

Board member Alison Sherman asked if ISD 834 is doing anything different with contact tracing and quarantining or if staff is being more or less conservative than anywhere else.

Health Services Supervisor Paula McDonald responded all districts are following the same guidelines from MDH.

“We do have some leeway to consider shortened quarantine options,” McDonald said. “And actually we’ve been able to be less restrictive with these cases that came up at Stonebridge since our return at the end of January.”

Board member Katie Hockert asked if the Stonebridge emergency has shown the district how to implement any other protocols at other schools.

Lansfeldt said the district will distribute communication quickly if another emergency occurs. The district is also telling parents to have a back-up plan in case students are sent home.

“I know that’s difficult, but parents please try and have a back-up plan in case something like this happens,” Lansfeldt said. “The On the Dial means that you could be switching at any time between the learning models.”

Assistant Superintendent Jennifer Cherry recommended families follow the same mitigation strategies recommended since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“We need to remember this pandemic is not over — even though students are returning to school,” Cherry said. “We want to keep kids in school, and in order to do that we need our families to help us keep everybody safe.”

In other business

The school board unanimously approved an internal inspection and compressor overhaul on a chiller at Stillwater Area High School for a cost of $86,486.

The preventative maintenance will extend the life of the original cooling plant installed at the school in 1993.

It is the last of the three chillers to get overhauled.

The school board also unanimously approved the 2021-2022 renewal contract with Upper Lakes Foods, Inc. and the “Big 8” Purchasing Group.

Stillwater Area Public Schools is part of the Big Eight partnership, which was formed to attain savings through volume buying and distribution of items utilized by all district food service operations.

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