Minnesota school districts will work with the department of health and local health officials to determine how best to open schools this year.
Brainerd has not yet determined how the year will look, but Superintendent Laine Larson said she will communicate with families within the next couple days to provide more information and garner more feedback on what they would like to see.
“I’m optimistic that it’s going to be a really wonderful school year,” Larson said in a phone interview after Gov. Tim Walz announced plans Thursday, July 30. “It’s going to be different than the last ones, but I’m really optimistic that together as a community that we are going to be strong together.”
The Brainerd School Board will have a special meeting Thursday, Aug. 6, to discuss Walz’s newly implemented Safe Learning Plan and learn about the district’s planning thus far. Any board action would take place at the following meeting Aug. 10.
Safe Learning Plan
During a Thursday news conference, Walz and officials from the state’s departments of education and health shared the Safe Learning Plan. The localized, data driven plan is grounded in science, officials said, takes into account each community’s situation regarding COVID-19 and prioritizes keeping younger students in the classroom as much as possible.
“COVID-19 is not going away anytime soon,” Minnesota Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said. “It is still very much with us. We are still in the growth phase of this pandemic. But we also can’t stop attending to the learning needs of Minnesota kids during a pandemic.”
Last month, the Minnesota Department of Education advised schools to have plans ready for three separate learning formats — in-person learning, distance learning and hybrid instruction. The hybrid model means learning would take place via a combination of in-person and online instruction.
Schools will determine learning models through the following steps:
The health department will use data from counties to determine a base learning model for public schools.
Minnesota Department of Education will share county data and the process for public schools to engage with education and public health experts to review their county health data and safe learning plans.
Public schools, with their incident command team, will evaluate their ability to implement required and recommended health best practices.
Public schools, in consultation with public health officials, will determine a learning model to begin the school year and communicate that decision with their school community.
Public schools and the health department will monitor the community and school-level impact of COVID-19 on a regular basis. Adjustments will be made to the learning model if needed.
Regardless of the model chosen, all public schools must offer an equitable distance learning option to all families.
“There are parents who want their kids in schools, and there are parents who are not ready,” Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan said. “There are teachers and staff who are incredibly limited or unable to do their jobs through distance learning and teachers and staff who are afraid to return. There are students who are at high risk for severe symptoms or who live with family members who are. And there’s students whose needs are not being met by distance learning this past spring.”
When selecting a model, school districts will take into account their county’s 14-day case rate per 10,000 people. The formula for this rate divides the total number of cases over the last 14 days by the county’s population per 10,000. The Safe Learning Plans provides the following recommendations based on a county’s rate:
0-9 cases per 10,000 over 14 days: In-person learning for all students.
10-19: In-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.
20-29: Hybrid learning for all students.
30-49: Hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students.
50-plus: Distance learning for all students.
According to case numbers from the state health department, Crow Wing County’s 14-day case count rate is 8.6 cases per 10,000 people from July 17-30. That would put Brainerd at in-person learning for all students based on the state’s chart. Larson said district officials will monitor those numbers closely, especially as the school year approaches.
Schools that implement in-person or hybrid learning formats must follow several requirements:
Personal protective equipment for direct support student services.
Build routines of hygiene education and practices.
Daily cleaning and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces throughout the day.
Building level COVID-19 program coordinator, with optional student counterpart.
Limited nonessential visitors and volunteers.
Discontinued large gatherings and activities that do not allow for social distancing.
Monitoring for illness.
Hybrid models also require school facilities and transportation to operate at 50% of maximum capacity with 6 feet of social distancing.
Schools will provide face masks and clear face shields for students and staff.
School district feedback
Larson said she especially appreciated two aspects of the Safe Learning Plan: The 14-day county level case rate chart, and the top goals of the plan, which prioritize the safety of students and staff and in-person learning for younger students.
A recent survey sent out to district parents and families garnered more than 3,200 parent responses representing more than 5,000 students. Larson said the survey showed a concern about the health and welfare of students and staff and an overall desire to have children with their teachers as much as possible.
“That came across quite loud and clear, and clearly that’s what we all want if we can do the things that we need to do to work together to keep our schools and our community safe,” Larson said, noting wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands and staying home when sick will go a long way to achieving that goal.
The model with which schools open may not be the model continued throughout the rest of the year. School and health officials will monitor factors like case numbers in the community; any cases tracing back to schools; how forthcoming students, parents and staff are about coming into close contact with COVID patients; and the school’s ability to maintain the current learning model based on staffing.
Regional support teams composed of health and education department staff will be created to support school districts and charter schools throughout the whole school year. The teams will be structured to allow for efficient communication from the school level to the state level in the event of a confirmed COVID-19 case in a school facility.
The Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act — or CARES Act — already allocated $430 million to Minnesota schools to help them through the pandemic.
Thursday, Walz announced an addition $250 million to:
Provide face coverings for every student, teacher and staff member.
Deploy a comprehensive COVID-19 testing plan for staff members.
Help cover operational costs, like cleaning supplies, transportation, technology needs and Wi-Fi access.
Boost student, family and educator support, like digital navigation training, tutors, translation services, mental health supports and professional development.
More information on the Safe Learning Plan is available at https://bit.ly/33cJO6D.