The Duluth School Board Thursday approved the “Return to Learn” plan and a new recommendation to start the school year with all students in hybrid learning by a vote of 6-1, with board member Sally Trnka voting no.

As conditions change locally leading up to and throughout the school year, Duluth could move to a different model, even rapidly if COVID-19 conditions get worse or a positive case occurs in a school. Though the Minnesota Department of Education has said schools must have a set model for the start of the school year seven days prior to the first day, Duluth Public Schools has committed to sending out student and family specific information for the start of the school year the week of Aug. 24.

Parents do have the option of choosing distance learning for the entire school year for their students.

This recommendation was changed from the one made to the School Board during a committee of the whole meeting Tuesday and is based on current conditions in the Duluth area. The recommendation on Tuesday was in-person learning for elementary schools and hybrid learning for secondary schools.

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In a hybrid model, secondary school students will be broken up into four groups and be able to attend in-person learning once a week. The current plan for elementary school students is to break them up into two groups, allowing them to attend in-person learning twice a week, though elementary school students may have the same hybrid plan as secondary school students if alternative child care spaces are not secured.

“On Tuesday I said hybrid is going to be really tough for us. I even said, I'm not sure it's the way we should go because of the childcare needs, but we are going to find ways of making that work,” Duluth Superintendent John Magas said, adding he is in talks with the city about possibly using some of their facilities for child care.

Duluth Federation of Teachers president Ethan Fisher spoke at the School Board meeting and said since Tuesday he has received numerous emails from other teachers expressing concerns with the upcoming school year.

“I am very concerned about the number of teachers that have indicated they are in a high risk category and I'm hopeful that a hybrid model will allow for some flexibility with people working from home,” Fisher said.

A memorandum of understanding still needs to be worked out between the teachers union and the district.

Decisions about the upcoming school year are determined at a local level by a county's number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 over a two-week period.

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.

Because St. Louis County is such a large county, Magas has said he is looking at Duluth area-specific numbers.

Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County public health and human services division director, said St. Louis County has been identified as having the fastest growing seven-day case rate in the state, and based on the most recent weeks, the Duluth area could likely be in the 20-29 per 10,000 people range by the time school starts.

Westbrook also said 75% of St. Louis County positive COVID-19 cases have been located in Duluth. On Thursday, of the 11 new COVID-19 cases reported by the state in St. Louis County, 10 of them were located in Duluth.

Duluth families are being asked to complete a back to school form to help inform planning. They’ll be asked about intent to participate in hybrid or enhanced distance learning, use of district transportation and signing up to receive technology support, among others. The form can be filled out electronically at www.isd709.org/ReturnToLearn. Hard copies will be available at summer meal sites. School and district staff will be reaching out to families who may not have access to the survey online.

For the most up to date information from Duluth Public Schools, visit www.isd709.org/ReturnToLearn.