More than 400 Brainerd Public Schools students have had to quarantine since the start of school year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn told school board members Monday, Oct. 12, a total of 335 students have returned to school since being in quarantine, and of those kids, 27 tested positive for COVID-19. As of Friday, Oct. 9, 78 students were still quarantined, and seven of them tested positive. Those numbers are largely due to a cluster of cases at Brainerd High School announced Sept. 22.
The cluster forced the ninth through 12th grade students at BHS, the Brainerd Learning Center and the Lincoln Education Center into a two-week distance learning period, with students returning to their hybrid schedules Thursday, Oct. 8. Under the hybrid model, sixth through 12th grade students attend classes in person two days a week and work remotely three days a week.
Administrators believe the two-week “reset” period, as they called it, worked as planned, as the number of students in quarantine and the number of new positive cases have decreased since Sept. 24. No new high school students have tested positive since Oct. 2, Hahn said, though some staff members have. Superintendent Laine Larson said most of the staff members who have tested positive had limited or no close contact with others in the school setting. To date, 135 staff members have had to quarantine, and about 28 are still in quarantine.
“So the question of whether the reset was a good idea? The data’s telling us it was a very positive move to make,” Hahn said.
All school facilities in the Brainerd district have reported positive cases except for Harrison and Riverside elementary schools, Hahn said.
The Minnesota Department of Health reports nearly 200 new COVID-19 cases in Crow Wing County in the past two weeks, putting the county’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate at about 29. Under the state’s Safe Learning Plan, school districts in counties with rates of 20-29 are recommended to have hybrid learning for all. Those with rates of 30-49 are recommended to have a hybrid model for elementary students and a distance learning model for secondary students. By this Thursday, Hahn said Crow Wing County health officials expect a rate of 32.1. But if the high school’s reset had not happened, she said Michelle Moritz, county public health supervisor, estimates the county’s rate could have been more than 50.
In recent days several schools have announced shifts from in-person to hybrid learning models for some students due to rising cases, including Crosby-Ironton, Little Falls, Pierz and Pillager.
Brainerd will not make any changes at this time. Students in kindergarten through fifth grade in the Brainerd district began the year in a hybrid model with buildings running at 50% capacity but kids still attending in-person classes five days a week with shortened school days.
After a consultation meeting with representatives from MDH, the Minnesota Department of Education, Crow Wing County Public Health and Sourcewell last Friday, Hahn said the recommendation from Brainerd is to continue operating as is. The recommendation came partially from the district’s proven ability to respond when something — like the cluster — happens, Hahn said.
Larson said those at the meeting praised the Brainerd staff and board members for diligent oversight thus far in handling the district’s positive cases.
“We’re really proud today of the work that’s been done by the school district,” Larson said. “... It is our recommendation tonight to stay and remain in the hybrid model, and we believe that that is the safest, best model for our students and our staff at this time.”
But to continue in-person classes for as long as possible, administrators said the district must:
Prioritize safety of students and staff;
Continue to partner with regional and state experts;
Consider the ability to trace and isolate close contacts, testing capacity, staffing levels and extracurricular activities;
Include all grade levels at each building if all-secondary distance learning is implemented, which would open up discussion about fifth grade students at Forestview Middle School, who are in a different hybrid model than the rest of the building;
Watch athletics and activities for safety protocols and cluster prevention;
Implement safety protocols as determined by MDH; and
Show caution when shifting learning models and don’t do it rapidly.
“We will continue to watch this very carefully, and we really feel like we’ve got a good handle on it right now,” Larson said.
Board member Ruth Nelson said all the board members were smiling under their masks at the news. She also said it’s important for the community to know how much time and work administrators have put in and how stressful that extra work has been.
Board member Bob Nystrom added a “thank you” to Larson for her leadership during this time.
“Leadership is not defined by how you perform during normal times. Leadership is defined by how you perform in difficult times,” he said. “And you have really met that challenge, and your legacy will be based probably on this. And I think when we look back, we will be so appreciative of what you did.”
Larson said it’s all about having the right team at the right time, which the district has. Everyone has given 150%, she said.
Right now the district has 1,185 K-12 students in distance learning, which Larson said more than staff ever would have thought. This number has caused strain on some teachers, she said, which the district is working to alleviate.
“We talked today about setting up a plan now, mid-semester, of trying to make some changes to help them out because we didn’t know what to expect and now we just have to do some modifications,” Larson said. “But it’s the right team at the right time. We appreciate the support from the board. We couldn’t do it if we didn’t have your support. And so together we’re going to get through this, and then we’re going to celebrate on the other side of it.”