Much of the Brainerd School District’s COVID-19 update Monday, Jan. 11, centered around fifth grade students and their unique predicament.
Superintendent Laine Larson and Assistant Superintendent Heidi Hahn updated school board members on the latest developments since Gov. Tim Walz amended the state’s Safe Learning Plan, allowing schools to implement phased reopenings. The shift, he said, was due to recent research showing younger children are less likely to develop severe symptoms from COVID-19.
Brainerd students in early childhood through second grade are set to return to the classroom Tuesday, Jan. 19, after having been in distance learning since mid-November. Third and fourth grade students will follow suit Feb. 1.
Fifth grade students are expected to return to on-site learning Feb. 1 as well, but the model — modified in-person or hybrid — is still up in the air. The same goes for the rest of the middle and high school students, who will tentatively return Feb. 16.
Coming up with a plan for fifth grade students has been especially difficult, Hahn said Monday. Fifth graders are technically considered elementary students under the Safe Learning Plan, but in Brainerd they are housed at Forestview Middle School with grades 6-8.
Fifth grade started the school year in the same manner as elementary students with a modified in-person schedule allowing them to attend shortened in-person classes every day. Students spent two or three days a week in a learning center-type setting in the cafeteria so the rest of the students could spread out in the classrooms. Later state guidance, though, told schools to keep learning models consistent for all students in each building, meaning fifth grade students should be in the same learning model as their middle school peers.
“Originally last Wednesday when we had the first consultation, they were feeling pretty confident about fifth grade should be in person, that should be fine,” Hahn said of meeting with state and regional health officials. “Then they kind of paused.”
The consultation team said they wanted to see what the countywide numbers would do before making a decision on fifth grade, as they were concerned about putting the students in a large setting like Forestview Middle School if numbers were to rise again.
The other piece, Hahn said, is that the district is following the governor’s guidance for indoor events, which are restricted to 25% capacity or no more than 150 people. In the fifth grade’s previous model, 250 students were in the cafeteria at a time.
The district has a leadership team working on a fifth grade plan that follows hybrid guidelines and still gets students in the building, similar to what the elementary schools are doing.
“They have to just basically recreate everything,” Hahn said, assuring the board that the district will not implement any measure unless it is approved by department of health officials.
Board member Tom Haglin asked if other districts have had to put a pause on fifth grade too and if not, why is Brainerd different.
For one, Hahn said, it’s the large size of the fifth grade, with some science classes having 35 kids in a class, which is too many in one room for proper social distancing. And secondly, she said many other districts throughout the state are different because they have fifth graders housed in elementary schools.
The leadership group will continue meeting and working with state and regional health officials in the coming days and communicate any progress with the board, Hahn said, noting she understands students, teachers and parents are all anxious.
Mitigation strategies and testing
Even with the new guidance, families can still choose distance learning for their students through the end of the school year. But for those in the classroom, the district plans to implement enhanced strategies to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Current cleaning and disinfecting practices will continue. Elementary students will work in small grade-level cohorts as opposed to larger classroom settings, and all students will be subjected to seating charts in classrooms and on buses.
The state also required schools to provide COVID-19 testing for all school staff who work directly with students in an in-person or hybrid learning model as of Jan. 4. These staff members will be able to take a test every two weeks, with the state covering the cost of supplies. Testing is not mandatory for staff members but must be available.
School district numbers
Twenty-seven staff members, including 10 paraprofessionals, were in quarantine as of the update Monday. Seven staff members tested positive since Jan. 1.
At least 19 students were in quarantine as of Monday, but the exact number is unknown, as not everyone is reporting symptoms during distance learning. There have been at least three positive student cases since Jan. 1.
Crow Wing County’s 14-day per 10,000 case rate was 30.22 as of Jan. 7, and is projected to be about 28.65 on Jan. 14. These numbers represent a significant drop from the peak of just over 200 in November. The rate has steadily decreased for the most part since then, with a slight uptick after Christmas, which administrators expected.
This rate now only affects the learning model for middle and high school students, who are recommended to be in a hybrid model under the Safe Learning Plan if the rate is between 20-29.
Hahn said she received many questions about the COVID-19 vaccine availability for school district staff, but that all depends on how fast the county receives vaccine doses.
“We've been assured by Crow Wing County Public Health that once they get the vaccines, they know what they're going to do. They're waiting for vaccines,” Hahn said, noting county health officials said school staff could potentially get vaccines in late March or early April.
“They are trying to move forward as quickly as possible,” she said.