All Hermantown Community Schools students will be returning to hybrid learning this month.

Superintendent Wayne Whitwam sent a letter to parents Dec. 9 saying he had scheduled a meeting with the district’s COVID-19 regional health team in hopes of getting approval for all grade levels to return to hybrid learning in January.

Whitwam sent this letter to parents and scheduled the meeting before Gov. Tim Walz’s update to the state’s Safe Learning Plan on Dec. 16, so the district is allowed to bring all students back to hybrid with support from the regional health team Friday.

Starting Tuesday, K-8 will come back to hybrid learning and high schoolers will come back to hybrid Jan. 21.

Walz announced on Dec. 16 new guidance for schools prioritizing in-person learning for elementary school students. Districts in Minnesota can bring their young students back to in-person learning beginning Jan. 18 as long as the district offers on-site COVID-19 saliva testing every two weeks to staff members who come in contact with students, as well as other mitigation requirements.

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Though elementary schools are allowed to switch to in-person learning five days a week, there are limits to how many grades can move back to in-person learning if those grades are currently in distance or hybrid learning. No more than three grades can be reintroduced into the building in a two-week time period.

Whitwam said due to the number of students who are distance learning, elementary school students will only come back for four days a week of in-person learning. Any learning plan that deviates from five days a week of in-person learning is still considered a hybrid learning model.

Whitwam said kindergarten and first graders will begin four days a week starting Feb. 3 and second, third and fourth graders will return to four days a week starting Feb. 17.

Monday will continue to be a distance learning day so teachers have a full day to check in with their distance learners.

Hermantown Community Schools switched all of their students to distance learning in November due to a high number of close contacts and high local COVID-19 numbers. In the two weeks leading up to Thanksgiving, the city of Hermantown saw 219 new COVID-19 cases, with 138 of those just one week leading up to Thanksgiving. That was the largest increase in cases the city has seen in a week during the pandemic.

But since Thanksgiving, the numbers in Hermantown have come down and have continued to decrease. In the past week, the city of Hermantown had only 33 new COVID-19 cases and 51 new cases since Christmas.

Whitwam said he is still worried about a New Year’s Day surge, which is why the district is waiting until February to start returning elementary students to four days a week. Whitwam noted he will be keeping an eye on how other districts that are bringing their elementary students back to five days a week.

Whitwam said he hopes to bring back middle school students in March and high school students back in April for four days a week if everything goes well and COVID-19 numbers continue to decline in the area. The Minnesota Department of Education requires districts to use local 14-day case rates in determining what learning model is appropriate for secondary students.

The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-verified 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents is 60.7 for the Duluth area from Dec. 13-26. The rate must be under 10 for secondary students to return to full in-person learning.