Some area school districts are looking to make the switch to distance learning, although for different reasons. Fergus Falls Public Schools will be switching to distance learning for students in grades 9-12 on Nov. 30, West Central Area School District will be changing their learning models beginning Nov. 23, and Perham-Dent Public School District will be temporarily changing its model after winter holidays in January.
At a Nov. 16 school board meeting, Fergus Falls Public Schools Superintendent Jeff Drake said, “(Our two county representatives) sent out an email last Friday … saying, given the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, this is the time that we would like to see districts start seriously entertaining a shift in learning models if they have not so far, and they suggested possibly even looking at that including shifting more to 100% distance.”
Although the announcement was not made at the meeting, on Nov. 17, Drake clarified, “Given the rise in COVID-19 cases in the community, Otter Tail County Public Health encouraged schools to prepare for a potential transition to a more restrictive learning which could include a move to distance learning. The district made a decision to move to 100% distance learning for students in grades 9-12 beginning Monday, Nov. 30.”
Students in K-6 will continue with in-person learning and students in grades 7-8 will continue with the hybrid learning model.
“We went from, about two weeks ago, the case rates per 10,000 was sitting at 50, last week it was at 66, this week it will be predicted to be over 100, possibly close to 120, so it’s increasing rapidly,” Drake said. “In terms of what we’re seeing for incident rates, or positive cases within the school district … three weeks ago we had six positive COVID-19 cases identified, two weeks ago we had seven, and then last week we had 16.”
Fall and winter activities will not be impacted at this time.
Parents with students at West Central Area School District received a letter on Nov. 13 from Superintendent Dale Hogie, elementary school principal, Natalie Prasch and secondary school principal, Susan Knutson notifying them that the district would be moving to distance learning. “Our hybrid model of instruction is not effective due to the limited number of students remaining in classes,” the letter said.
Hogie said, “Our reason for going to distance learning isn’t a safety issue or an overwhelming abundance of COVID positive cases ... it has to do more with the number of students going into quarantine and coming back out, the ratio of distance learners that we have versus in-school students, and then also staff absences with some of them being quarantined now, as well as the regular absences, causes us not to be able to fill positions because of lack of substitutes.”
In three weeks, the number of students in quarantine has grown from single digits to over 140 students, the letter said. Another reason for the change includes Minnesota and county projections that COVID-19 cases and quarantine numbers are expected to increase.
Hogie acknowledged the difficulty teachers are facing teaching three different groups of students: in-class learners, distance learners and quarantined learners.
The shift to distance learning in West Central Area School District will not affect extracurricular activities. “Our activities will continue as long as we can do that safely and as long as the Minnesota High School League and our state agencies will allow us to go forward with them,” Hogie said.
Perham-Dent Public School District will continue with their current model of in-person learning for grades K-6 and hybrid learning for grades 7-12, but will be shifting to distance learning after the holiday break beginning Jan. 4 through Jan. 18.
“Just knowing that families are going to get together over the holidays and New Years Eve and then coming back within two weeks of that time is probably just going to lead to trouble in the schools with everybody gathering,” Anderson said. “So we’re looking at self imposing distance learning for that period and then come back to our current models on Jan. 19, that Tuesday after MLK day.”
By self imposing distance learning, Anderson means that the district is voluntarily making the change, as opposed to being directed to by the state. “We’re volunteering to do it just knowing that, like I said, we’re going to have a lot of families that will still get together. Originally we were set to return to school on Jan. 4, so we wanted to put at least a two-week, 14-day natural-quarantine period in place, so we’re asking our staff and our students to self-monitor, stay home, those things, before we return to normal school models,” Anderson said.
Families received a letter notifying them of the changes on Nov. 13 but a formal announcement will not be made until the Perham-Dent Public School District school board approves the change on Wednesday, Nov. 18.
“Our incident command team is meeting this week and our school board meets Wednesday, so looking at our current numbers, everything is subject to change by the way, so we could be implementing a shift in models before winter break, but that one for sure, the post-winter break, the board is going to act on,” Anderson said.
Extracurricular activities will not be impacted by the shift to distance learning. Anderson said, “Activities will continue to go on, all our sports teams and everything, if they have plans for practice and games and whatnot, those will not be affected by it.”
The winter holiday itself will also not be impacted.
Although all three school districts report that sports and activities will not be impacted by the switch to distance learning, Drake says, “There is some reason to believe Gov. Walz will be addressing this (on Wednesday).”