The summer of “not knowing” ended Thursday afternoon as Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, Assistant Gov. Peggy Flanagan and their health and education commissioners announced the state’s Safe Learning Plan.
The plan lets school districts make their own decisions based on COVID-19’s impact in their respective counties. While districts with high COVID-19 rates may be compelled to return to the distance learning model they followed last spring, outstate schools in counties with low COVID-19 rates have the option of bringing students back in person or in a hybrid learning model.
While returning to some type of educational model has always been the Minnesota Department of Education’s plan, no one knew until Thursday what that might look like in outstate Minnesota.
“We just want the health data to be the starting point,” Walz said, who last week signed an executive order mandating the wearing of face coverings in all buildings and situations where social distancing could not be maintained.
The learning model announced during Thursday’s 94-minute session in St. Paul presented five options based on the number of cases per 10,000 residents over 14 days. Zero to nine cases would allow for in-person learning for all students. If the number of cases was 10-19 over 14 days the learning model would be in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students. Counties with 20-29 cases would be able to offer hybrid learning for all students. Those counties where 30-49 new cases came up over 14 days would follow a hybrid learning model for elementary students and a distance learning model for secondary. Counties with 50 new cases of COVID-19 and up would need to follow distance learning for all students.
“The Fergus Falls Public School District was very pleased with the announcement from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) this afternoon,” Superintendent Jeff Drake said Thursday. “MDE provided districts with guidelines based on real-time data that allow local decision-making and flexibility.”
From the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drake has taken comfort in the fact that the state has pledged to support and guide school districts.
“The Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Department of Health has pledged ongoing support with local COVID-19 incident rates and will guide us through school-related decisions that support the safety of students, staff and community,” Drake said. “The district is in the process of finalizing its reopening plans and will communicate specifics following approval by the school board. We believe that whether we are providing instruction in person, through a distance-learning model, or a combination of both - our students will receive an exceptional learning experience during the 2020-21 school year. ”
Fergus Falls Secondary Principal Dean Monke told the Daily Journal Thursday that enrollment in District 544 schools without adding IQ Academy online students last fall stood at 2,049. By factoring in IQ students, a portion of whom live in other districts, the enrollment jumped up to 2,958.
Like Drake, Monke likes the flexibility of the plan Walz announced. As a school administrator, he will also have the duty of reviewing the copious amount of information that accompanies the plan.
“The real issues are in the fine print,” Monke said.
Matt Lemke, the chairman of the Fergus Falls school board, was impressed with the state’s decision to let districts make decisions.
“I appreciated Governor Walz’s announcement that allows individual school districts the ability to make decisions concerning how reopening of schools should look like depending on county counts per 10,000 over 14 day average of COVID-19 cases,” Lemke said. “I know our administration has been working hard to come up with multiple plans on how we can reopen the Fergus Falls public schools and comply with the governor’s “Safe Learning Plan.”
Hillcrest Lutheran Academy President Brad Hoganson agreed with Lemke.
“I appreciate Gov. Walz’s approach to a complex and challenging situation for our state that allows districts and schools to reopen with localized, data-driven plans. The Hillcrest experience is composed of robust academic programs and meaningful relationships that are formed within our school community at both the Morning Son and the Hillcrest campus. In light of the governor’s announcement, Hillcrest Lutheran Academy will open for in person instruction with a strong plan to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 on our campus.”
Classes resume at Hillcrest on Aug. 24 and at Morning Son on Sept. 8.
Hoganson said the Norwegian students from the Danielsen School in Bergen, Norway will not be returning to campus this year for the first time in over 30 years. The Norwegian government has canceled all study abroad programs for their high schools and universities. They are committed to returning in the fall of 2021.
“We will likely see a lower international enrollment overall this year due to COVID-19 travel restrictions,” Hoganson said. “We hope international students will be able to join us as travel opportunities open up. Until then, we are offering distance learning opportunities for students who cannot be on campus.
Despite the precautions planned, state officials are expecting COVID-19 to find its way into schools
“We know that there will be cases of COVID-19 in our schools and the key will be how well we can identify that, assess that and control that right away,” Department of Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said.
Malcolm pointed out that if there is a case of COVID-19 in a school, a saliva test will be given and within 24 to 48 hours the school would have the results.
Malcolm said the data collected on COVID-19 suggests that younger children are not as susceptible as other age groups.
In speaking to Minnesota’s student body, Walz promised that their safety was of the uppermost importance.
“When we think about this decision we are very, very clear about our goals – your safety and the ability to get you into classrooms to learn,” Walz said.
The governor, who himself was an educator for more than two decades, also addressed teachers.
“Our pledge to you in this decision-making process is to make sure that we give you the tools necessary to deliver what you need to deliver in the safest most effective manner. That is going to mean making sure that we are testing extensively in our schools and you can feel safe - to know if or when you have been exposed.”
Assistant Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said the MDE expects that approximately 181 school districts in the state will fall into the in-person school model while 230 will offer a combination of in-person elementary and hybrid learning for secondary students, 107 districts will go with hybrid learning for both elementary and secondary, approximately seven with a hybrid for elementary and distance learning for secondary and nine with distance learning for both.
The distance-learning model all districts followed last spring will continue to be offered this fall for parents who do not feel comfortable about sending their children back inside schools.
“This has been an incredibly emotional and difficult time for all of us,” said Flanagan, who has a school-aged daughter with asthma. “Every family is going to have to have those hard conversations but necessary conversations about weighing the risks.”