The Edina School Board decided last week to accept the district’s plan to transition all grades to distance learning by the end of the month.

Following two emergency meetings of the Board, all students from kindergarten to grade 12 will move to distance learning. The decision comes after COVID-19 numbers in the community have risen dramatically in recent weeks, according to city and county data. Distance learning will remain at least through the end of the year.

“This is not what any of us want but is what state guidelines call for and what our public health experts tell us is necessary to protect students, staff, families and community,” Superintendent John Schultz wrote in an email sent to Edina Public Schools’ families last week.

Schedules differ slightly for the high school, middle school and elementary schools, though all are expected to begin an updated distance learning schedule by Nov. 30.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported that in Hennepin County, COVID-19 cases per 10,000 numbered 51 for Oct. 18-31, the most recent two-week period reported. The number for the previous two-week period was 34.38. In Edina, the latest number was 40.9 cases per 10,000. Bloomington Public Health’s Nick Kelley, who has been advising the district’s administration, said this number is not up-to-date and the city’s number is actually over 60.

“That concerning trajectory that we’re seeing is reflected of a substantial change in the last two weeks,” Kelley said at the Nov. 10 meeting. “That is putting us on an unsustainable trajectory in the city of Edina from a case standpoint.”

The first emergency meeting, which took place Nov. 10, established grades 3-12 as going to distance learning. An emergency meeting on Nov. 12 resulted in kindergarten through grade 2 going to remote learning as well.

Challenges to keeping up with staffing – with so many in quarantine or isolation – as well as an increased risk to those in the building were reasons for the decision, Schultz said. From September to October, the number of staff in quarantine or isolation increased from 87 to 161.

“What is happening right now is not that we’re seeing raging spread within ... our school system, it’s that these layers that we have built to keep our students safe are starting to unpeel,” Board Chair Erica Allenburg said at the meeting. “They’re starting to get to the point that we cannot guarantee a safe learning environment for our students.”

COVID-19 data at the schools

At first, members of the board expressed hesitation in transitioning the district’s youngest learners to distance learning, but decided risk factors warranted the move. As of Nov. 12, more than 117 elementary staff in the district were in quarantine or isolation. All three kindergarten classes at Cornelia Elementary were in quarantine, totaling 68 students.

MDH reported that Edina High School was one of the buildings that has had five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff who were in the building while infectious during a two-week reporting period.

Schultz stated in the email, “These (EHS) numbers represent a high risk to the safety of Edina students and staff. They also result in inconsistent learning for students, and unsustainable staffing challenges for the district.”

Edina School Board members weigh in

COVID-19 is not spreading so much in the schools, but rather, in the greater community, Boardmember Owen Michaelson pointed out at the Nov. 12 meeting. He said the Board should think about letting kindergarten through grade two remain in school.

While public health expert Kelley had previously said the main spread is not occurring in the school buildings, he added that in order to get the COVID-19 case rate to slow, community transmission must be reduced – including in the school setting.

Boardmember Julie Greene disclosed that she had in the past been sick with COVID-19. To her, keeping school in-person “is not responsible.” She added, “I am saddened by where we’re at as a community, and as a state, but it’s the reality. ... It’s not a scare tactic,”

Boardmembers suggested several ideas to discuss in the near future. These included providing support services for parents, adding opportunities for mental health help and improving the hybrid and Edina Virtual Academy models should students be allowed to return.

The district also cannot flip their decision to reopen “back and forth” as this impedes learning, said Boardmember Matthew Fox. “We’ve got to think in terms of chunks of time.”

The district plans to revisit the decision during winter break, which is scheduled Dec. 21 through Jan. 1, with the goal of phasing students back into school after if it is safe to do so. If it is not, the district will assess again in mid-January.

“This is one of the most difficult decisions I have made, I would probably say, personally (and) professionally,” Schultz said.

The Board will discuss the safety of athletics and other extracurricular activities at a later date.

Students who require in-person special education programming will continue to receive instruction at school, according to an earlier email from the district. Other student populations, such as those with significant learning challenges or multilingual students, may be considered for in-person education.

Community education programs plan to continue.

“Our strength lies in our partnership and our unified focus on Edina’s students, and together we will continue to move forward,” Schultz said in the email.

– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent

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