Some Northland school districts are hoping to have a decision on the 2020-21 school year by the end of next week.
The decision will be based on a localized, data-driven approach that allows school districts to operate in a learning model that is responsive to the number COVID-19 cases in their community.
Based on the current 14-day COVID-19 case average per 10,000 people in St. Louis County, and state thresholds, Duluth Public Schools said in a news release it could consider some form of in-person learning for the start of the school year.
“We must assess our local circumstances and have further conversations with stakeholders based on this new information,” Duluth Superintendent John Magas said in the release.
The state asked all districts in June to plan for three possible models — in-person, distance learning and a hybrid of the two — that way, districts could switch between models if necessary.
More information about the Duluth district's plan will be shared with the public and the Duluth School Board on Tuesday. Magas said the plan will be continually updated with new information and will be available at isd709.org/ReturnToLearn.
The Proctor district administration announced in a letter to the public it will discuss its three possible plans during a Monday special board meeting. The School Board is expected to make a final decision no later than Aug. 11. The district will also survey families, faculty and staff on their preferred plan during the first week of August.
Duluth Edison Charter Schools Head of School Bonnie Jorgenson said a special board meeting for her district is scheduled for Aug. 6. The board will review all three plans and review the feedback collected from families and staff about the model they prefer.
“We are also reviewing all the health and safety requirements, our COVID-19 preparedness plan and staffing availability,” Jorgenson said. “Certainly all students in the building presents more challenges for health and safety requirements and we want to be certain we can meet that challenge.”
Jorgenson said she anticipates a decision to be made about what model the district will use at the meeting, but that it is possible the board might request more data before doing so.
“I also think it’s important to note that how a school begins the year may change based on what occurs with COVID rates in a county or school,” Jorgenson said.
Reggie Engebritson, superintendent for both St. Louis County Schools and Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools, said she was very pleased with the work the Minnesota Department of Education and Department of Health has done and is happy about the ultimate decision being left locally.
St. Louis County Schools are spread all over northern St. Louis County, so Engebritson said the decision on which model to use will be done on a school-by-school basis instead of blanketed across the district.
Because many of the schools Engebritson is in charge of are in rural areas, she said distance learning this spring was an “extreme challenge” as some students have no internet access.
“So we need to figure out how we get our kids back in school to build connections and learn the skills they need and yet keep everybody safe,” she said.
Both St. Louis County and Mountain Iron-Buhl school boards have meetings scheduled for Tuesday. Engebritson hopes to have a decision for parents of both districts after those meetings.
Rock Ridge Public Schools Superintendent Noel Schmidt told the News Tribune the district will be exploring ways to safely open school for the maximum number of students with no set date yet on when details will be released. Rock Ridge is the newly combined district of Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert schools.
Schmidt did want to remind the public to “pay the most attention to scientific and evidence-based practices” by wearing masks, social distancing, quarantining when needed and getting tested as soon as possible when they suspect they’ve come into contact with COVID-19.
“(Communities that do this) will have fewer cases and consequently, their kids in school more often,” Schmidt said. “Communities that don't pay attention to these simple and proven practices will eventually have more COVID-19 cases and consequently a greater chance of not having their kids in school.”
Gov. Tim Walz announced Thursday that all staff, faculty and students in the state, including those in private schools, will be given one cloth face covering to use. Masks are being required by the state to be worn in school buildings, with few exceptions.
For parents who are worried about younger children wearing masks, Dr. Jonathan KenKnight, section chair for pediatrics at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, said practicing at home now will help.
“Have them be part of the decision of picking out a mask. Make it something fun like a cartoon character or a color they love because this is something they’re going to be wearing every day,” KenKnight said. “Also encourage them to wear it correctly so their nose isn’t showing and it covers their chin. Trying to find a mask that fits your child’s face is going to be really important.”
KenKnight, who is also a general pediatrician, said it’s also important to never put a mask on a child under age 2 and if parents have health concerns about their child wearing a mask, they should contact their doctor.
This story has been updated at 12:30 p.m. July 31 to correct some errors in the schools graphic.