COVID-19 cases are forcing temporary bouts of distance learning throughout the lakes area.

All ninth through 12th grade students at Brainerd High School, Lincoln Education Center and Brainerd Learning Center will attend classes virtually beginning Thursday, Sept. 24, with classes canceled Wednesday after the announcement of a growing cluster of COVID-19 cases.

“The school district has diligently completed contact tracing for students and staff who have come in contact with COVID-19 to date; however, our current cluster has grown to a point where we cannot contact trace each person involved within the positive cluster exposure,” Superintendent Laine Larson wrote in a letter to families Tuesday, Sept. 22, “Through the process of our contract tracing, it has become clear that the rapid transmission of these positive cases occurred outside of school during social gatherings.”

The district did not provide a specific number of cases.

Wednesday, Sept. 23, will serve as a “reset” day for teachers to prepare for full-time distance learning for the next two weeks, following consultation with the Minnesota Department of Education. The school’s hybrid learning model is expected to begin again Thursday, Oct. 8, with B group students returning to in-person classes that day.

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During the two-week distance learning period, teachers and students will follow the hybrid learning bell schedule. If anything changes, students and families will be notified, the letter stated.

All Brainerd High School-sponsored athletics and activities will be postponed or canceled during the two-week period, and there will be no in-person practices or competitions. Coaches and advisers will reach out to their athletes and participants. Students who are in quarantine or have a positive COVID-19 diagnosis will not be allowed to participate until they meet state health department guidelines.

Activities Director Charlie Campbell said Tuesday afternoon all practices and competitions were still on for that night, including home tennis and girls soccer matches, along with boys soccer and swimming and diving competitions in Bemidji. Beginning Wednesday, he said the activities program will move to virtual contact only, per recommendations from the state health department and directive from Larson.

“We understand that this may create unease in our community,” Larson’s letter stated. “We have taken action to clean and sanitize the facility and are working closely with MDH to monitor the situation.”

Voicemails to Larson went unanswered Tuesday afternoon.

Pierz

All fifth grade students at Pioneer Elementary School in Pierz will also be distance learning for a time because of two positive COVID-19 cases.

According to a statement from the district, staff first received confirmation of a student with a positive COVID-19 test Friday evening, Sept. 18. The student was last at school Sept. 15. Notification of another positive test in the same classroom came the following day.

By Sunday, Sept. 20, the district learned of three more students in the same grade who were reported to have symptoms. The Minnesota Department of Health told the district to identify one complete section of fifth graders as close contacts and advised following a plan to keep those in that class home until there is time to verify any additional spread.

Classes were canceled for fifth graders Monday, Sept. 21, as teachers prepared for distance learning and families picked up Chromebooks and other materials. Distance learning began Tuesday. Superintendent George Weber said the tentative timeline calls for students returning to class Sept. 29 — two weeks after the first infected student was last in class. That timeline may change, though, he said Tuesday.

“It’s possible we’ll end up moving that to all of next week, too,” Weber said, noting the district feels it will best to wait to bring students back until all test results are in.

Weber said technology integration for the fifth graders seemed to be going well as of Tuesday.

The rest of the students at Pioneer Elementary School will continue in-person classes as scheduled.

“We just didn’t feel it was necessary to not bring other grades in,” Weber said, referencing direction from the state health department stating the risk of exposure for other individuals present in the building is no greater than the risk of contracting the virus in the general community.

“As the next week progresses we pray there will be good news with many, many children showing no signs of symptoms,” the district’s statement said. “Our teachers will be communicating daily. We have reached out to any families who want free meals to pick up at school. We are planning this as a short-term intervention and want that to be the message for our students and parents. Keep up with your schoolwork. Keep up with your class and stay

in communication with your teacher. We will continue to update you as soon as we have information to help us set dates when children can return.”

Weber said he has been in close contact with Morrison County Public Health and state health officials, trying to get as much information out to staff and families as possible.

Information on steps to take to stop the spread of COVID-19 and what kinds of symptoms to look for is available on the district’s website at pierz.k12.mn.us.

“There are many things each of us can do to help keep our schools going,” the district’s statement said. “We need the help of all parents, siblings, and any household with children, to take the social and behavioral steps to not bring the COVID-19 virus into the home.”

Pequot Lakes

There are confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff and students in the Pequot Lakes School District, Superintendent Chris Lindholm announced at the school board meeting Monday, Sept. 21. Though he believes the district has it under control, he encouraged everyone to prepare for changes as Crow Wing County cases are “trending in the wrong direction.”

“We have been able to send home the folks that were in close contact with them, and they are isolating,” Lindholm said. “It wasn’t anything that seemed out of control from what we can tell. Families should, however, be preparing now for the possibility that we may have to quickly switch to distance learning for a two-week schoolwide quarantine period. … We are seeing that happen across the state, and it is highly likely that we will have to do that at some point.”

PineandLakes Echo Journal Editor Nancy Vogt and Dispatch sports writer Conrad Engstrom contributed to this story.

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