All middle and high school students at Brainerd Public Schools will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5.

Superintendent Laine Larson announced the shift to distance learning from the hybrid model in a letter to families Thursday, Oct. 29.

“It’s just heart-wrenching,” Larson said in a phone interview Thursday. “... It is for families, it is for everybody. And we were hoping we would never get to this point.”

There is no end date for distance learning at this time.

Larson cited staffing shortages as the primary reason for the move, with 18 more staff members staying home Wednesday — either with symptoms or quarantining due to close contact — leading to a total of 53 unstaffed positions throughout the district.

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“Finally I got to the point where I can’t staff my school,” she said, noting the transportation department is hit especially hard. Two bus routes had to be dropped Wednesday, she said, and the district has exhausted all of its substitute resources. Mechanics, office staff, custodians, the transportation director and even Reichert Bus Service owners are driving buses to pick up the slack.

Laine Larson
Laine Larson

Climbing COVID-19 cases in Crow Wing County played a part, too, as one of several data points the district continuously monitors. According to information released by the Minnesota Department of Health Thursday, Crow Wing County’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate for Oct. 4-17 is 40.25. The state’s Safe Learning plan suggests hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students when a county’s rate falls in the 30-49 range. A rate of 50 or over triggers the recommendation of distance learning for all students. At the last Brainerd School Board meeting Monday, administrators said public health officials predict to announce a rate of about 50 next week for the time frame of Oct. 11-24.

Transition plans

Students will continue attending classes through Monday, Nov. 2, with no classes Nov. 3-4 to allow for preparations. Students in group B will attend in-person classes Friday, Oct. 30, and students in Group A will attend in person Monday. Fifth graders will continue their regular schedules through Monday.

Up until now, fifth grade students have had all in-person classes, as the district worked to ensure younger students had as much face-to-face time with teachers as possible. Recent guidance from state officials, however, advises schools to keep a consistent learning format throughout each building, meaning fifth grade students will follow their older peers at Forestview Middle School into distance learning. Larson said she hopes elementary students can remain in their in-person classes as long as possible and believes the move to distance learning for older students will help keep the elementary schools adequately staffed.

“As we know, there’s nothing more important than having teachers and kids together,” she said. “And we want these numbers to go down real fast so we can have our kids back on site.”

Forestview Middle School students leave school Thursday, Oct. 29. All middle and high school students in Brainerd will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Forestview Middle School students leave school Thursday, Oct. 29. All middle and high school students in Brainerd will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Emergency child care will be available for tier one workers with students in fifth through seventh grade. Tier one workers include those in health care, public health, law enforcement, public safety, first response, the judicial system, National Guard, education and child care.

Despite the change to distance learning, athletes can look on the bright side, as sports will continue. Larson said there have not been any cases in coaches or athletes so far, so the district feels comfortable moving forward with sports at this time.

Starting Thursday, Larson said the district enacted a new social distancing guideline of 8 feet instead of 6 to help cut down on the number of people who have to quarantine due to close contact. Public health officials define “close contact” as being within 6 feet of someone for more than 15 minutes.

Larson knows there are parents out there who will worry about their students’ performances during distance learning. She does, too.

“I’m really worried about our children and our staff in either one of these models,” she said. “... We’re going to do a really good job with our staff at continuing to make those contacts with our children. And anything we can do as a district to help out during this period, we want to be there for our kids, for our staff and for our families. We truly are in this together.”

If students have issues with remote learning, administrators have said parents should contact the child’s teacher first. If the problem persists, they should move on to the building principal and up the chain of administrators if need be.

Forestview Middle School students leave school Thursday, Oct. 29. All middle and high school students in Brainerd will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
Forestview Middle School students leave school Thursday, Oct. 29. All middle and high school students in Brainerd will begin distance learning Thursday, Nov. 5. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Teachers and other staff members are more prepared for distance learning now than they were in March, Larson said, with the necessary technology in place and increased professional development resources. Synchronous scheduling — meaning students have the same schedule whether they’re in distance, hybrid or in-person learning — should be helpful this year as well, she said.

As COVID-19 case numbers continue to climb, Larson again encouraged everyone in the community to follow health guidelines to help get kids back in the school buildings.

“I think the most important thing, again, is just reminding everyone that we need to all be part of the solution — to wear the face coverings, to keep the social distancing, the 6 feet that they talk about, wash our hands regularly, clean the areas, disinfect the areas that we’re in, stay out of large group situations,” she said. “If we’re sick or have any kind of symptoms, just go to the doctor, get the test and make sure that we’re following those protocols because the sooner we can come out on the other side of this, the sooner we can get back to what we love about school and about living here in the Brainerd community. And I just can’t wait to get back to normal.”

Regional school roundup

The other two major Crow Wing County school districts — Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton — have not announced any changes to their hybrid models as of Thursday.

Pequot Lakes Superintendent Chris Lindholm said Tuesday he feels the district has done a good job of getting ahead of the virus with an aggressive hybrid model and as a result, there’s been just 14 cases since the beginning of the year. There were five active cases — four staff members and one student — as of Oct. 29, though Lindholm said there have been a lot of students and staff quarantined. He said about half a dozen to a dozen people are usually at home each day either having symptoms or awaiting test results. He noted there are other illnesses going around as well, like strep throat and influenza.

“We’ve been fortunate that nothing has broken out in a big cluster. But, again, it could happen on any given day,” Lindholm said. “... We’ve been blessed to be able to be in person this long, and hopefully we can for a while yet.”

Pequot Lakes High School. Brainerd Dispatch file photo
Pequot Lakes High School. Brainerd Dispatch file photo

Crosby-Ironton Superintendent Jamie Skjeveland said Thursday the district monitors case numbers every day and engages parents and teachers in regular conversation. Any decision made to change learning models, he said, will be made as a learning community.

“Our No. 1 focus is keeping our students and our staff safe. That is absolutely our No. 1 priority,” Skjeveland said. “And I know our parents, they have a real strong desire to keep our kids in school, but we have to make sure that we’re creating a balance of protecting our students and staff while achieving our goal of keeping kids in school as long as we can. So that’s why we’re having these collaborative conversations.”

As many districts throughout the state have reported, Skjeveland said there is no evidence of COVID-19 transmission in school facilities, leading administrators to believe they are taking the right steps. He echoed Larson’s sentiments, urging everyone to wear masks and follow proper hygiene practices both in and outside of school.

Pine River-Backus students in seventh through 12th grades will continue distance learning until Monday, Nov. 16. The announcement to move from “remote” learning to distance learning for the remainder of the week came Tuesday, after several staff members were possibly exposed to COVID-19. The following day, the district said in a Facebook post there was a “significant number of staff in quarantine and positive cases,” leading to the extension of distance learning.

The distance learning model differs from remote learning, with students logging into each class via Zoom at the appointed time and essentially taking an online class. The district has offered in-person options for students who need extra help, but those supports will not be available during distance learning.

All sports practices and games are suspended during the two-week period.

Pine River-Backus Schools. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch
Pine River-Backus Schools. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Pierz Healy High School students will continue in hybrid learning. When the decision to transition to hybrid was made earlier in October, the plan was to do so until at least Saturday, Oct. 31. The district announced Thursday students will remain in hybrid learning until further notice.

Pillager Superintendent Mike Malmberg announced Thursday there are no plans to change learning models at this time. Pillager High School is on the Minnesota Department of Health’s list of school facilities with five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff who were in the building while infectious during a two-week reporting period. The school shifted to hybrid learning for middle and high school students Oct. 20 to help drive down numbers.

The school reported its 17th case Thursday. Only two of those cases have been in the elementary school and did not involve students.



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