It will be back to school next Tuesday for Waconia public school students for a second time this 2020-2021 academic year – at least for younger students.

Under a plan approved Monday evening by the District 110 School Board, students in pre-school through grade 5 will return to the classroom every day, while learners in grades 6-12 will remain in distance learning for now and transition back to a hybrid model or in-person learning over the next several weeks.

Students in grades 6-8 will continue in the distance learning model with a target date to return to the hybrid model Feb. 16 at the midpoint of the third quarter. Under the approved plan, students in grades 9-12 will return to the hybrid or even an in-person model on March 16, right after spring break.

The district has been in a full distance learning mode since Dec. 1 in the face of a surge in COVID-19 cases in November.

Since then, the number of coronavirus cases has declined and latest governor’s executive orders give new guidance to schools for bringing students back to the classroom or in a hybrid blend of in-person and online learning.

On Jan. 4, a Minnesota Department of Education regional COVID-19 advisory team gave the Waconia school district authority to return elementary school students to in-person learning Jan. 19 and consider moving grades 6-12 back to the hybrid model.

While there is a strong desire to bring elementary school students back to in-person instruction, there is good rationale to support either model for students in grades 6-12, said Superintendent Pat Devine.

With feedback that distance learning was better this time around, and in some cases preferred over the hybrid model, the school board at an organizational meeting Jan. 4 requested that district officials survey parents, staff and students to determine their preference before recommending the school model to offer grade 6-12 students.

The survey was conducted last week and results were divided, according to Devine. Parents generally favored the hybrid model, teachers distance learning, and students somewhere in the middle.

Other factors in the transitional plan recommended to the school board Monday evening include safety concerns in returning students and staff; the potential for more spikes in COVID-19 cases from the return to campus and startup of activities, particularly with a new, more contagious strain of the virus now identified in Carver County; staffing concerns if and when quarantines begin to happen again; effects from transitioning or “ping-ponging” between learning models; and when the COVID-19 vaccine will be available to staff.

“Having enough teacher substitutes is still a concern and the phasing schedule for the COVID-19 vaccine is still unknown,” Devine said. “We know that educators will be one of the first waves, yet the rollout is moving slower than anticipated. The information we are hearing from the Minnesota Department of Health is that we may see the vaccine getting to our school employees as early as February and as late as April.”

All factors led to what some board members and school administrators called a “no-win decision” in approving the transitional learning model plan, with the preference to have all students back in the classroom. Approval came on a 5-2 vote with board members Luke DeBoer and Jackie Johnson expressing support for a motion to bring grade 6-12 students earlier in two-week transitional increments, noting the struggles that some students and families face in distance learning. That motion failed on a 4-3 vote.

Board members who supported the original recommendation called the plan a cautious, safe approach that could slow down the virus, preserve continuity and get kids back to the classroom.

“As we move forward with the next learning plan, we will continue to monitor COVID cases and the staff/student quarantine numbers to ensure safety and that we are delivering the best learning model under the conditions,” Devine said.

Meanwhile, the state of Minnesota will be supplying the district with COVID-19 saliva tests possibly by Feb. 1 for all employees that want to be tested. Employees will be given the opportunity to be tested for COVID-19 every two weeks. Testing for employees is optional.

In other school news, the school board at their first meetings of the new year welcomed newly elected members Alycia Myers and Luke DeBoer, and returned re-elected member Dana Geller as board chair for another term. Jackie Johnson was elected vice chair/clerk and John Weinand treasurer.

Committee assignments and advisory council appointments were slated to be made at a later date. The board also will be reviewing the district’s financial condition and statutory operating debt recovery plan this month following voter approval of an operating levy in the November election.

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