After March 2020, the news in the Lakeville Area School District was all about the pandemic.

The COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., Minnesota and locally led to the closure of Lakeville Area Schools on March 16 for the rest of the 2019-20 academic year.

The 2020-21 school year started out optimistic enough with a hybrid model, as students were separated into two cohorts to reduce classroom capacities by 50%, but the district went to full distance learning for all grades in November as coronavirus case counts more than doubled in Dakota and Scott counties.

Following is a look back at what happened in the past year (which seems so distant now), and the future of COVID-19 and District 194.

Ides of March

Gov. Tim Walz ordered on March 15 all schools in the state to close to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The District 194 closure included all programs, practices, activities and child care.

The district coordinated the pickup of learning materials and personal items prior to spring break with an optimistic expectation that students would be back in school when the break ended March 29. The virus had other plans.

“While the state of Minnesota has stated learning may resume on March 30, the district is preparing for the possibility that we may not be able to resume in-person learning in our school buildings,” the district said in a press release on March 16. “We need our families and staff to be prepared for extended distance learning in the event it happens.”

“While we hope this national crisis resolves quickly, we all need to be prepared for learning and working for an extended period of time,” the district said. “Thank you for your understanding and preparedness during these uncertain and disruptive times.”

The district implemented its Extended Flex Learning Plan starting Monday, March 30.

“We know this may put significant pressure on our families and we want to give you as much time to adjust as possible,” the district said.

Distance learning continued through the end of the school year as teachers, students and parents received a crash course in using technology tools that many had never used. They all learned to become experts in such tools as Zoom, Schoology, Seesaw, Google Docs and more.

The last two-plus months of the school year online meant the cancellation of many of the cherished in-person school traditions, such as awards nights, track and field days and even graduation ceremonies.

Lakeville high school students, along with District 194 teachers and staff, shared their perspectives about graduating amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The students at Lakeville North, Lakeville South and the Area Learning Center watched their commencement ceremonies unfold on television and computer screens throughout the district on Saturday, June 6.

Student and staff speakers highlighted the themes of resilience, selflessness and grit during the ceremonies that were broadcast on local cable channels and online.

Superintendent Michael Baumann said the students should have been able to share hugs in the halls on their last day of school and watch a sea of graduation caps tossed to the sky on this night.

“I know how hard this has been for all of you,” he said.

Baumann said they have learned to adapt and be creative with their learning, giving them life skills to draw upon in the next stage of life.

He said they have shown resilience to overcome and selflessness in putting the needs of others first.

“We can’t wait to see what you do next,” he said.

Back in class

The first day of school in the Lakeville Area School District for the 2020-21 academic year was moved back from its original start date to Monday, Sept. 14, for all students.

Students started in the hybrid learning model in accordance with Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan, which was released in August. This model allowed each K-12 student to learn in school in person two days a week and at home three days a week.

The hybrid model, while creating logistic and at-home learning challenges, continued for more than two months before an increase in COVID-19 cases precipitated a change.

Classes in kindergarten through 12th grade moved from hybrid to full distance learning by Nov. 30.

The district was the first of four area public school districts to move to all online learning. Data found the 14-day COVID-19 case rate in the district’s population “normalized” with county data was 51.8 per 10,000 residents.

The Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Education set forth in August’s executive order that a COVID-19 case rate over 50 should move a district to all online instruction.

“I’m not an epidemiologist, I have to trust the state,” Baumann said of the benchmark of 50. “I do know what the state has told me, and they have said that’s a problem.

After fall break, students started online classes five days a week.

District officials said it had become more difficult for schools to sustain the hybrid model, due to internal COVID-19 cases and quarantine counts; substitute fill rates for teachers and other staff; and students opting for full-time distance learning.

With the advent of multiple vaccines and COVID-19 cases being comparatively few among young people, Gov. Tim Walz said on Dec. 16 that Minnesota public schools could implement a phased return to in-person learning for elementary school grades on Monday, Jan. 18, without adhering to COVID-19 case rate guidelines.

The Lakeville Area School District released last week its tentative transition plan for elementary students to begin a full-time, in-person learning model, according to a release from the district.

“We are excited and encouraged at the prospect of seeing students in person in the new year,” the district said. “We will continue to follow the latest data and guidance, and will continue to communicate with you as we work through the many details of our plan.”

For K-2 students, the last day of distance learning will be Jan. 20, and they will begin in-person learning Jan. 25.

For grades 3-5, the last day of distance learning will be Feb. 3, and they will begin in-person learning Feb. 8.

Students in grades 6-12 will remain in distance learning until further notice.

Early childhood students remain in their current model.

High school sports and co-curricular activities may begin in-person practices on Jan. 4.

Levy decreases

While several numbers changed in the Lakeville Area School District budget since its September preliminary, the final analysis has tax relief for residents.

According to the district, the median value home of $370,000 with no change in value from 2020 to 2021 would have a $54 decrease for the district’s portion of the tax levy.

District 194 levied to the maximum amount allowed by law in September, but the 2021 total proposed levy of $59.756 million is $183,954 less than what the district levied in 2020.

That was due to an enrollment deceleration.

At the end of the 2019-20 school year, the district’s enrollment was 11,075. It was 11,436 as of an Oct. 13 report. The projected 2020 enrollment was 11,670.

Director of Business Services Bill Holmgren said the district is going to see its enrollment bounce back next year.

The district didn’t meet enrollment projections due to the COVID-19 pandemic leading families to not enroll kindergarten-eligible students, deciding to home-school or enrolling elsewhere.

New board member elected

In the race for three Lakeville Area School Board seats, incumbents Terry Lind and Judy Keliher were reelected, and newcomer David Anderson was added to the board after the Nov. 3 results were counted.

Lind, a former District 194 principal, and Keliher, a longtime board member, finished as the top and third-place vote-getters, respectively, while Anderson was in second. They will each serve four-year terms starting in January.

Lind had 12,502 votes, or 19.09%, in the seven-person race. Anderson had 12,445 votes, or 19.01%. Keliher had 9,799 votes, or 14.96%, according to results posted Nov. 4.

Other vote totals and percentages were: Katie Ruberto, 8,682, 13.26%; Laura Sanders, 7,980, 12.19%; Laura A. Carder, 7,857, 12%; and Sarah Wellcome, 5,871, 8.97%.

An open seat was created after Board Member Bob Erickson filed for reelection this fall but withdrew from the race. His name did not appear on the ballot.

Erickson, a former Lakeville city administrator for 15 years, has been on the School Board since 2008.

The Lakeville Area School Board will have another opening to fill, as Board Member Zach Duckworth was elected to the Minnesota Senate.

Duckworth was elected to the School Board in 2018. There are two more years remaining on his term. The board has yet to determine how to fill the seat. It can either select a new member through an appointment process or wait until an election can be set by November 2021 at the latest.

Lawsuit dismissed

Five counts brought against the Lakeville Area School District in a wrongful death lawsuit were dismissed following the Oct. 15 filing of a summary judgment.

Anoka County Judge Bethany Fountain Lindberg ruled that District 194 was not negligent in its actions with regard to the student-organized Nerf Wars planned for the 2015-16 school year.

On Dec. 4, 2015, Lakeville South High School students Jacob Flynn, 17, and John Price IV, 18, died in a vehicle crash on 225th Street about 3 miles from the school. Price and two other students in the vehicle were participating in a “kidnapping” of Flynn during the Nerf Wars at the time of the crash.

The judge said that the plaintiffs – the families of Flynn and Price – did not demonstrate that the district was negligent in executing existing policies and by not adopting an anti-Nerf War policy; that the district failed to supervise or warn students; and that the district failed to report incidents and train its employees.

Gregory Walsh, attorney for the families, said they were extremely disappointed in the decision.

The lawsuit was brought by the families of Flynn and Price in February 2018. Alexander Hughes, the driver of the vehicle, joined the lawsuit Feb. 6, 2019. Hughes died on Nov. 3, 2019, and upon his death his claims were dismissed against District 194.

The lawsuit sought more than $50,000 for each of five counts of negligence.

Donation offered

Jay and Sue Blanchard, owners of Safety Signs in Lakeville, offered in December to give a $250,000 donation to the Lakeville Area School District to be used toward costs related to a pool under construction at Century Middle School.

The donation, along with other donations and fundraising, could elevate the pool project that was included in the November 2019 referendum to a regional competitive site that has been described as being on par with only two such sites in the state at the University of Minnesota and in Rochester.

During the Dec. 8 School Board meeting, Superintendent Michael Baumann related information about the donation, which he said includes a request to name the facility the Blanchard Aquatic Center.

The donation has not been formally accepted by the board, along with the naming request. Consideration of both are expected at a later date.

Baumann said the administration recommends the board accept the facility naming proposal to secure the large and generous donation of $250,000.

Costs for the pool project have been discussed often by the School Board since it was learned in March that the $10.9 million included in the referendum was below the actual cost to build the basic needs expressed. The base bid results have the project cost at $15,295,840.

The cost does not include parking lot changes for the project, which will be paid for using Long-Term Facilities Maintenance funds up to $1.5 million.

It also does not include $651,645 in pending alternatives that could make it a regional competitive site.

Since the pool was included in the bond referendum, swimming boosters have advocated for expanding and increasing the cost of the pool project to make it a regional competitive site, which the board decided to consider by placing bid alternates in addition to the basics.

The district pegged $210,630 of alternates (enhanced scoreboard, endless pool and diving well additions) to be paid for through donations.

The board will review bids on Jan. 12 for several items related to the pool.

BLM sign ban

Guidance from the Lakeville Area School District banning the display of Black Lives Matter signs in school buildings stirred up a reaction in the community in September.

Four parents of students in the district spoke during the Tuesday, Sept. 22, School Board meeting, and many more in the days that followed, expressing their concern about a memo that said displaying Black Lives Matter signs in school buildings violated a policy regarding Political Campaigns and Activities.

After hearing much feedback on the topic during the week, on Sept. 18 in letter to students, staff and families, Superintendent Michael Baumann said of the memo’s policy interpretation: “I acknowledge the impact for many was hurtful.”

The dispute hinged on the district’s interpretation of displaying a Black Lives Matter sign in a classroom or in a school building. Baumann said teachers were asking for guidance on displaying the signs.

The district said the general goal of the Political Campaigns and Activities policy is to “maintain neutrality as to all political campaigns and issues.” The district concluded that displaying a Black Lives Matter sign “reasonably could be perceived as endorsing or opposing specific political issues or political candidates.”

The memo said that Black Lives Matter consistently advocates for “ ‘defunding the police’ – which is clearly a political issue currently being debated in Minnesota and nationwide.”

The memo said the analysis would apply to “All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter or Keep America Great posters.”

The Lakeville Area School Board heard from several speakers during its regular meeting Oct. 13 on both sides of the district’s interpretation of a policy.

Eleven people shared at times personal and emotional stories related to racism they experienced while students in the district and their views of the Black Lives Matter movement and organization, which the district deemed to be political in nature in banning its signs.

Those who spoke in agreement with the sign ban said that Black Lives Matter refers to itself as a political movement, while those in opposition to the ban said the display of Black Lives Matter signs provides much-needed affirmation and support to Black students.

Superintendent Michael Baumann indicated previously that Policy 535, which covers Political Campaigns and Activities, needs review, as the district’s interpretation of the policy has not changed.

Any review of the policy likely wouldn’t come until after the district continues to gather feedback and holds community listening sessions regarding race and equity. Dates and times for the listening sessions have not been set.

New additions

Lakeville Area School Board members agreed at a June 4 work session to having three elementary school additions constructed to have them ready to open in the 2021-22 school year.

The three additions at Eastview, JFK and Christina Huddleston elementary schools would accommodate 364 students and position the district for any possible expansion of prekindergarten offerings.

The additions would be paid for using lease levy funds, which Minnesota districts can use without having to seek voter approval.

The board discussed placing one or more of the school additions onto a future bond referendum to seek land and building costs for a ninth elementary school, but chose to use lease levy in order to expedite the process.

Board members were split on the idea of when to seek voter approval for a new elementary school. Some felt that putting a $30 million bond referendum on the ballot in February 2021 would not be in the best interest of the district. The other option presented by administration was for a February 2022 bond referendum, which if successful would have the elementary school opening in fall 2025 instead of a year earlier.

The 2019-20 school year the district had 250 unaccommodated students based on classroom capacity at the elementary levels.

That deficit was projected to grow to 325 students by 2021-22, despite a new 10-classroom addition that opened in 2019 at Lake Marion Elementary and changing Impact Academy from a whole-school program to an option at Orchard Lake, allowing for more enrollment at the school.

Board members will discuss at a future work session when to seek voter approval for the ninth elementary school and whether it would be combined with other future building projects.

Based on housing development and projected population growth in the district to about 90,000 residents in 2030, the district predicts that enrollment will be over 14,000 by 2030.

In order to accommodate the number of students by then, the district says it would need to construct:

• Two elementary schools (with plans to accommodate prekindergarten).

• One middle school.

• One early childhood center.

• Two additions and renovations to the high schools or a third high school.

• One Area Learning Center.

• One maintenance facility.

• One district office.

The latter three are all in current spaces that are projected to be replaced. The last two are in leased spaces.

Tad Johnson can be reached at tad.johnson@apgecm.com.

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