Brainerd students will likely begin school in a hybrid learning model this year, meaning instruction will take place both in the classroom and online.

For kindergarten through fifth grade students, this means shortened, in-person school days. For those in sixth through 12th grades, it means two days a week in the classroom and three days a week remotely. Early childhood students, as well as those at the Brainerd Learning Center and Lincoln Education Center, would be in-person every day with shortened days.

Students will still have the option of distance learning if they choose and will be able to change models at the beginning of a trimester or semester.

Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn and Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha recommended this plan to school board members during a special meeting Thursday, Aug. 6.

“This is the safest model for both staff and students. It allows consistent contact for all students and includes more in-person learning for our youngest and most at-risk learners,” Murtha said. “... It also aligns with the science-based formula and the guidance from our local public health officials.”

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Enrollment forms went out to district families Thursday afternoon to gather information on specific plans for learning method, transportation and internet service.

Board members, the majority of whom seemed to support the hybrid proposal, will vote on the plan at its regular meeting Monday, Aug. 10, but Superintendent Laine Larson said board members will have until Aug. 24 to change the plan if COVID-19 case numbers change drastically.

The plan focuses on four goals, which line up with those included in Gov. Tim Walz’s Safe Learning Plan:

  • Prioritize the safety of staff and students.

  • Prioritize in-person learning, especially for younger learners and those with specialized needs.

  • Use science-based formulas provided by the Minnesota Department of Health to implement learning models and work under direct guidance of local public health officials.

  • Support planning and flexibility that differentiate approaches to teaching and learning.

K-5 students

Under the hybrid plan, students in kindergarten up through fifth grade will have in-person learning five days a week, but days will be shortened to about five hours, similar to early release days.

The shortened days will allow some teachers to teach students both in person and remotely and also give them time to prepare and to collaborate with other teachers.

“Our staff will tell you that distance learning was 10 times harder than in-person learning, and they spent hours upon hours providing them instruction,” Hahn said. “So it’s vital we give them that collaboration time, but this still prioritizes us being able to have our elementary kids with us every single day.”

In some instances, distance learning students may be able to join a live class virtually. Or, as some teachers may choose to work from home for health reasons, those teachers may create their own online groups with students learning remotely.

The extra time will also allow for daily cleaning.

Students on site will learn in grade level cohorts, or groups, which will be smaller than regular classrooms to allow for social distancing and a 50% maximum facility occupancy required by the state for a hybrid learning plan.

Baxter, Nisswa and Garfield elementary schools, Hahn said, have great large spaces that will allow for social distancing. In schools without large spaces, classes will be split up into smaller groups.

Because students sixth through eighth grades will only be at Forestview Middle School part time, fifth grade students will be able to spread out throughout the school, allowing them to be in person every day along with elementary students.

The after school child care program Fun ‘N’ Friends will still run as normal.

6-12 students

Students in sixth through 12th grades will be split into two groups, following what administrators call an AA/BB model. The A group will go to school in person Mondays and Tuesdays and work remotely the rest of the days. The B group will go to school in person Thursdays and Fridays and work remotely the rest of the days. Wednesdays will be remote learning for all 6-12 students.

In-person days will be shortened similarly to elementary days.

Students will be split up alphabetically with the assurance students in the same household will go to school the same days.

These students will also follow a synchronous online learning model, meaning the schedules of students working in person will be synchronized with those working remotely.

“When we talk about synchronous schedules, we're talking about, no matter what we're in — regular education, hybrid or distance — the child's primary, essential teacher does not change. Their schedule stays the same,” Murtha said, noting students will have a seven-period schedule like normal.

Virtual attendance will take place for remote students, whether they chose full-time distance learning or are working from home three days a week.

Early childhood

School readiness, voluntary pre-k and early childhood special education programs will run in person with added health and safety precautions.

Staff for the birth through age 3 program will not provide home visits, but families can do on-site or virtual visits.

Early childhood screenings will continue but would move to online or phone interviews if the district was forced into a distance learning model.

Early childhood family education programming will continue with smaller class sizes and likely mixed age groupings.

Alternative learning

Students at the Brainerd Learning Center and Lincoln Education Center would have in-person classes, with their instruction similar to normal but with shortened days. The buildings are large enough to run at 50% of capacity and for students and staff to social distance.

Behind the decision

Responses from a recent family survey weighed heavily on plans. Hahn said the district got responses from around 3,500 families, representing about 75-80% of the district.

Of those responses, about 300 families said they preferred distance learning for the year, while the majority said they wanted students to be with their teachers as much as possible.

Another big takeaway, Murtha said, was structure and consistency. During distance learning last spring, students did not have structured start and end times or a consistent schedule, unless they forced it upon themselves.

Board members Tom Haglin and Ruth Nelson advocated for more in-person days for students in grades 6-8, suggesting the A and B groups switch off being on site every other Wednesday.

“What we’ve heard — and it totally makes sense — is it’s a lot easier, a lot better, a lot more successful for families and teachers to have students in,” Haglin said. “... Why would we just have one day that is completely vacant? Why wouldn’t we take advantage of having the kids back in?”

Murtha and Hahn harkened back to the importance of consistency for both students and their families, and noted a fluctuating schedule would throw a wrench in transportation as well.

The transportation schedule is up in the air, as the district waits to hear from parents regarding their plans. As buses can only run at 50% occupancy, the district is urging parents who are able to do so to drop their children off and pick them up. About 55% of survey respondents already plan to do that, but transportation routes will likely change to accommodate those who need it.

As a parent with students in elementary and middle school, board member Charles Black Lance said he likes the plan proposed and noted adding another day every other week would be more stressful for his family, even though he and his wife have fairly flexible jobs.

“Consistency for us is king,” he said, noting his family had a difficult time during distance learning last spring with instructors changing plans mid-week, even if it was a reasonable adjustment.

Mask policy

In accordance with state requirements, all students and staff in school buildings must wear either masks or face shields. Teachers with medical exemptions must provide proof from a doctor, as is required for all medical work accommodations, Murtha noted. Those who have proper exemptions will be provided with face shields.

Walz’s Safe Learning Plan

Walz announced the Safe Learning Plan July 30, authorizing school districts to work with health officials to determine their own reopening plans.

When selecting a model, districts were asked to 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 Plan 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.

Under state guidelines, hybrid learning models must follow several guidelines, including mask wearing, social distancing, daily cleaning and designating a COVID-19 program coordinator.

Local numbers

Crow Wing County’s 14-day rate for July 24-Aug. 6 is 11.2, with 73 cases in the last 14 days. By the first day of school on Sept. 8, Hahn said the projection is 20-29 cases per 10,000, according to Michelle Moritz, the Crow Wing County Public Health official working with the district. That would put the district in a recommended hybrid learning model for all students. Moritz also reported to the district an increasing number of cases among children and said she will continue to monitor the infection rate in children.

Based on the numbers, choosing a hybrid model to begin with, Hahn said, means a lesser chance of the district having to abruptly change the learning model, which could add further stress to students, families and staff.

Board meetings

Thursday’s full school board meeting is available at https://bit.ly/3gBAq0u.

The board’s next meeting is 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 10, when members are expected to approve the learning plan.

Larson noted Thursday that because of the volume and repetition of public comments the board has so far received regarding the learning plan for the upcoming school year, those comments will not be read aloud during Monday’s meeting but will be available for anyone who wants to read them by contacting the district.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.