Brainerd School Board members voted to begin the 2020-21 school year in a hybrid learning model and began discussing a districtwide mask policy.

The format will have students in kindergarten through fifth grade learning in person each day, while those in grades 6-12 will attend in person classes twice a week and learn remotely three days a week. In addition, distance learning will be an option for any student who so chooses.

While board members learned about the plan during a special meeting Aug. 6, they officially approved it during their regular meeting Monday, Aug. 10, after Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn and Director of Teaching and Learning Tim Murtha answered additional questions.

The board also gave Superintendent Laine Larson authority to alter plans based on the public health situation regarding COVID-19. Larson has the authority to select a different learning model after consultation with the board chair and without board action if she “reasonably believes that prompt implementation of a different learning model is necessary, and that constraints of time and public health considerations render it impractical to hold a school board meeting to approve the implementation,” according to the measure board members passed Monday. Any new learning model chosen by the superintendent would remain in effect unless the board — in consultation with district administrators and public health officials — votes for something different.

“It’s almost 6,700 children. It’s 1,200 certified and non-certified employees in our school district. And we’re trying to look at the right plan that will best meet the needs of everybody throughout our community in a situation that none of us want to be dealing with,” Larson said Monday, noting she believes the plan put forward is the best possible plan for Brainerd Public Schools.

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About the plan

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

Those in grades 6-12 will follow an AA/BB format, with students in the A group attending classes in person Mondays and Tuesdays with remote learning the rest of the week, while the B group will attend in person Thursdays and Fridays with remote learning Monday-Wednesday. In-person school days will be shortened.

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. There will not be home visits for the birth to 3 program. Instead, those visits can be done at school or virtually.

Parents have until Monday, Aug. 17, to fill out online enrollment forms, available at http://www.isd181.org/, to select either the hybrid learning model or distance learning and answer questions about transportation and meals. The deadline was extended from Aug. 14.

As of 3 p.m. Monday, 3,184 enrollment forms had been submitted, with the K-12 enrollment for 2020-21 estimated at 6,284 students. Of those who filled out the form so far, 407 — or 12.8% — opted for distance learning.

Information on procedures for transportation and meals will be provided after all enrollment forms have been filled out.

Those who need assistance filling out the online enrollment form should contact the welcome center at 218-454-6900.

Mask policy

According to Minnesota’s Safe Learning Plan, schools that implement a hybrid model must have a mask policy.

With those guidelines and Gov. Tim Walz’s statewide mask mandate in mind, the school board approved the first reading of a new face covering policy Monday. The policy will require two more readings at future board meetings before it will be implemented.

Under the policy, employees, students and anyone else on school property must wear face coverings in classrooms and other indoor areas — including transportation vehicles — as well as outdoor areas where a distance of 6 feet cannot be maintained between people.

Pre-kindergarten students ages 5 and younger will not have to wear face coverings, but kindergarten students age 5 will wear face coverings to promote consistency in the classroom.

A face covering — which must cover the nose and mouth — is defined as a paper or disposable mask, cloth mask, scarf, neck gaiter, bandana, religious face covering or medical grade mask or respirator.

Plastic face shields may be used as alternatives to face coverings in certain circumstances. Students in kindergarten through eighth grade may wear a face shield when a face covering becomes problematic, and all staff, students and visitors who cannot tolerate a face covering due to developmental, medical or behavioral health conditions may wear a face shield instead. In addition, teachers or other staff members may wear a face shield when a face covering may impede the educational process.

The superintendent or another designated district representative will have discretion to determine whether an employee, parent or community member qualifies for a reasonable accommodation. For students with a medical condition or disability, the child’s educational team will determine whether the student qualifies for a reasonable accommodation. Before providing alternative accommodations, the district may require an individual to provide a physician’s note and/or other relevant information with respect to the condition or circumstance. Requests for alternate accommodations will be assessed on a case-by-case basis in accordance with state and federal laws.

Face coverings are not required to be worn: during indoor physical activities when the level of exertion makes wearing one difficult; during outdoor activities, provided social distancing is practiced; during showering or swimming; while receiving certain medical care services; when eating or drinking; during indoor practices and performances involving singing, acting, public speaking or playing a musical instrument; when required by staff for identification purposes; for staff working alone in their offices, rooms or vehicles; or when communicating with a person who is deaf, hard of hearing or has a disability that would impede communication.

The district will provide face coverings and face shields to students and staff, though employees and students may wear their own, provided they comply with guidelines and dress codes.

Employees who refuse to comply may be subject to discipline, up to and including termination of employment. Students who do not comply may be subject to discipline or removal from school property.



Local case numbers

As of Monday, Aug. 10, Crow Wing County had 239 positive COVID-19 cases, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.

The Safe Learning plan includes guidelines based on county case numbers. 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.

Crow Wing County had 73 new cases from July 28 - Aug. 10, putting the 14-day case rate at 11.2. District administration previously said county health officials predict a rate of 20-29 by the time school starts Sept. 8, which would put the district in a hybrid learning model for all students. District officials said they want to be conservative with their opening method, as they want to provide as much consistency as possible for students and do not want to have to change up the schedule on a whim.

Questions from the board

While Murtha and Hahn said they are working diligently to respond to all questions they receive from the public as quickly as possible, they took the time to answer some questions board members raised since the last presentation.

What happens if someone in the district tests positive for COVID-19?

Hahn said the procedure is not yet finalized and she did not want to give out any information that may not be correct. The district is working with Michelle Moritz, of Crow Wing County Public Health, to determine procedures.

How will the district support students, families and staff with the social and emotional challenges of hybrid and distance learning?

The learning model prioritizes in-person contact and daily contact with teachers via distance learning to promote student well-being. Access to mental health services will be available for both in-person and distance learning students. The synchronous scheduling supports social and educational relationships and allows teachers to have dedicated time to reach out directly to students who are struggling.

Why are distance learning days shortened? What does that mean?

In-person learning days will be shortened to allow for teacher collaboration and prep and extra building cleaning time.

How will students’ placement in group A and group B be determined?

Groups will be determined by both last names and by family, to ensure family members with different last names will be kept together. On a case by case basis, the district will work to the best of its ability with families who request to be in the opposite group.

How will distance learning be different from last spring?

Students will have structured schedules with definite start and end times and will have added accountability with daily attendance. Each student will have their own device, and more technology supports and training will be available. Each student will have identified time to live chat with teachers.

Why can’t there be an option for those who want five days of in-person learning, like those who want five days of distance learning?

Staffing needs, 50% occupancy requirements under state guidelines for a hybrid learning plan, transportation and cleaning schedules will not allow for all students to be in person every day.

“In a nutshell, it’s not the safest thing to do for children and for staff,” Murtha said.

More questions

A document of frequently asked questions is available at https://bit.ly/2DyyB6i. A link is included for community members to submit questions to be added to the list.

Thoughts from the board

Larson praised everyone who has worked to develop this year’s learning plan, including administrators, teachers, paraprofessionals, building and grounds workers, food services staff, board members and even parents and community members who have asked questions and provided feedback.

“We don’t have all the answers, but every single day we learn more answers, and we’re going to continue to work through it as we move forward,” she said. “... This isn’t easy. It isn’t what we want to do, but together we’re going to make it happen, and we’re going to do the best job that we can for these kids.”

Board member Bob Nystrom assured the community the board and district officials are doing the best they can to promote safety and security for students.

“I want the community to know that we cannot create a perfect solution. This is unprecedented in education,” he said. “... And I just want you all to know that every person who sits on this board — we represent the community, but really our big responsibility is doing what’s best for children. … So we just want to reassure the public that the staff here is doing their utmost to provide the best environment for learning for these kids, and we ask you just to stick with us, and we’re going to try to make the best possible decisions this year.”

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