Duluth Public Schools Superintendent John Magas is recommending that the district start the 2020-21 school year with in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students.

Magas made his recommendation to the Duluth School Board Tuesday night after presenting the "Return to Learn" plan for the district. The School Board will vote on the recommendation and plan during a special meeting Thursday at 5 p.m.

The Return to Learn plan presented at the Duluth School Board committee-of-the-whole meeting Tuesday includes plans for in-person learning, distance learning and hybrid models for elementary and secondary schools.

District leaders, along with state health and education officials, will decide at the district level which plan will start the year and get that information out to parents and teachers. Duluth Superintendent John Magas told the News Tribune he hopes to have a decision by the end of the week, though as conditions change locally, that decision may change, also.

Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker said last week schools would be expected to announce their plans at the latest seven days prior to the start of school.

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What model districts are in throughout the 2020-21 school year will be based on local community COVID-19 numbers. Though no matter what model is decided, parents have the option of requesting distance learning for their children, specific to each child’s school, if they do not feel comfortable sending their children to schools.

State health officials are set to determine a county's number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 over a two-week period to guide local decisions, and they could require a school to move to a different approach if cases climb. Because St. Louis County is very large, Magas told the News Tribune, he is able to see Duluth-specific 14-day trends, which were not looking very promising as of Monday.

Minnesota Department of Health policy states that if the range of 14-day case rates per 10,000 people is zero to nine, in-person learning for all students can happen. If case rates are 10-19 per 10,000 people, elementary schools could be in-person while secondary schools would be in hybrid; 20-29 all schools would be hybrid; 30-49 elementary schools could be hybrid while secondary schools would be hybrid; 50 or more, all students would be distance learning.

Magas told the School Board Tuesday that St. Louis County as a whole is in the zero to nine range, but looking at Duluth-specific numbers, the city is very close to 10. Magas said with COVID-19 cases trending up recently the decision to start secondary schools in a hybrid model is the best way to keep students, staff and teachers safe.

Magas said as conditions change in the community, a switch to a different model may also rapidly change throughout the year. Magas also said the decision to close schools based on a positive COVID-19 test within the district would be made either on a school-by-school basis or regionally. If conditions got really bad, Magas said, they would consider a districtwide decision.

Duluth’s hybrid model

The Return to Learn plan, which is a working document and may change, laid out the plans for all three models with more detail on the hybrid model. The possible elementary hybrid model has students split into two groups and attending in-person learning twice a week with Wednesday being used as a day to clean before the next group comes in for class Thursday and Friday. Magas did say this could change based on child care plans being finalized. If a district is in a hybrid or distance learning model, it is required to provide child care for teachers and essential workers.

“There's a greater chance that we would be just one day for elementary because of the requirements that we provide child care; we just wouldn't have the capacity to do 50% of our kids and child care unless we find off-site child care sites, which is something we're exploring,” Magas said.

In a hybrid model, middle and high school students would be split into four groups and attend in-person learning once a week. Details on what that one day would look like are still being worked out, but Magas said students would have a schedule of classes to attend and it would be used as a day for teachers to connect with students.

Distance learning 2.0

The Duluth district has made improvements to its distance learning model from the spring. These improvements include a more robust distance learning experience tailored to individual student needs, the district plan said.

The platform for distance learning has also been changed. Because of the emergency switch in the spring, the district relied on Google Classrooms for the most part. For the 2020-21 school year, elementary students will use SeeSaw, and secondary school students will use Canvas, which allows a more enhanced learning experience than Google Classrooms.

Also, as part of the new distance learning plan, students can expect more interactions with teachers and classmates.

The district has also made investments in devices for students who may need them and is currently working to provide internet access for students through hot spots.