As COVID rate rises to 13.74 per 10,000 people in St. Louis County, some area schools have updated their learning models accordingly.

On Thursday, St. Louis County’s COVID-19 Dashboard was updated with infection rate information reflecting Aug. 23 to Sept. 5. Greater St. Louis County is currently at an infection rate of 13.74 per 10,000 people. Last week, this number was 10.87 and the school year began at 4.87. Duluth’s infection rate was updated to 12.98, an increase from 10.15 last week.

These latest bi-weekly case rates for schools are based on cases reported Aug. 23 to Sept. 5. Any illnesses in the last 12 days are not yet included.

“It is up to each school district to decide what is the best/safest way to educate their students,” said St. Louis County Communication Manager Dana Kazel, over email Thursday. Recommendations for the in-person, hybrid or distance learning models are just that, recommendations. “And the guidance from MDH/MDE is that schools actually look back at three reporting periods, not just the most recent, when making their decisions.”

Parents of the Rock Ridge School District received a letter Friday cautioning that a transition to the hybrid model may be in the near future and could happen as soon as Sept. 28 for high school students.

“The new guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health is to wait for three weeks of data before changing learning models unless there is an outbreak in the schools,” wrote Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt. “We currently have two weeks of data. The two case rates were 10.87 (first week) and 13.62 (second week) per 10,000. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, if the third data point (third week) which will be released next Thursday (September 24), is higher than 10.00, we will have reached the guidance level from the Minnesota Department of Health for switching to hybrid learning.”

“If we move into hybrid learning mode, we will most likely move out of hybrid mode and back into in-person learning if the case rates fall below 10.00 per 10,000 for three consecutive data points (or three weeks).” Once classes are moved to the hybrid model, they are likely to remain hybrid for at least three weeks.

If the transition to hybrid occurs, there will be no school for grades 7-12 on Sept. 28 and 29, to provide teachers time to prepare for this transition.

Elementary students will not transition to the hybrid learning model until the infection range is 20.0-29.99. If grades PreK-6 transition to hybrid, they two will be out of school for two days to allow teachers time to prepare.

“We will continue to work closely with St. Louis County Public Health and Minnesota Department of Health to monitor the transmission of COVID-19 throughout the year to keep our students, their families, and communities safe,” Schmidt continued. “Our school board and COVID planning team will work to change learning models if at any point we feel it is in the best interest of our faculty and students.”

To help keep schools informed and provide support, there is a public health liaison, Aubrie Hoover, assigned to schools in the northern part of the county.

“I have been in daily communication with Northern St. Louis County schools providing local data updates & trends and helping them navigate the Decision Tree for any situations they are seeing within their schools,” said Hoover in a provided statement by the county. “We provide all the information we can and they make the best decision for their faculty and students in regards to their health and wellbeing.”

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Chisholm Public Schools is remaining in-person learning but Superintendent Janey Blanchard acknowledged over email Thursday that this may change.

In Ely, the Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council met Thursday afternoon. Following the meeting the decision was made to move to the hybrid model for grades 6-12. Elementary students will remain in-person.

“We did make our decision based on the 13.74 number and local considerations,” said Superintendent Erik Erie over email Thursday.

Classes have been canceled Monday to allow teachers a day to prepare for this transition.

The students body was divided into Team A and Team B. Team A will have in-person learning Monday and Tuesday. Team B will have in-person learning Thursday and Friday. The days a student is not in the classroom, they will be distance learning.

“When distance learning, students are expected to log into each of their classes for live stream instruction from their teacher,” stated a letter sent to family from Ely Principal Megan Anderson. “Teachers have loaded students into the Google Classroom and will be participating via Google Meets.”

On Friday, teachers worked with students logging and accessing these services.

The school has ordered Chromebooks, but they have yet to arrive. For students needing a temporary device, the district is issuing iPads.

East Range Academy of Technology and Science began its school year in the hybrid model, which they hope to continue throughout this first semester.

“We seem to be doing OK with the new model,” said School Director Amy Hendrickson. “Even though staff miss those interactions with kids who are not in their direct cohort, the hybrid model hopefully allows us to keep our staff safer as they are not exposed to as many students per day face-to-face.”

Floodwood began transitioning toward a hybrid model following last week’s release of COVID numbers. They will not be changing models.

“In-person is working well for our students. If it wasn't for the hand sanitizer, social distancing, masks and the directional arrows for walking, it would seem like every other school year,” said Superintendent Dr. Rae Villebrun. “Our students have accepted the change with little to no frustration.”

Hibbing began utilizing the hybrid model for grades 7-12 this week and they will continue with this model. “The numbers increasing confirm that decision,” said Superintendent Richard Aldrich. “All things considered, the switch has gone very well.”

Aldrich explained that there have been some technical issues with connectivity and logins for the new iPads each student has been issued.

“This may have happened at any point during the year, but the switch to hybrid brought all the issues to the surface,” Aldrich said. “Also, hybrid has teachers making deeper connections with students for both in person days, and distance learning. I want to thank our staff for taking on this additional work and doing their best for our students.”

Mesabi East began their school year utilizing the hybrid model for grades 7-12.

Mountain Iron-Buhl will be remaining in-person learning.

The Nashwauk-Keewatin School District will remain in-person. This district is in Itasca County. The current COVID infection rate was updated Wednesday to 9.3, a drop from last week’s 9.96.

However, according to the data for K-12 Schools, updated Thursday by the Department of Health, the 14-day case rate for Itasca County is 10.62

Itasca County is using up-to-date information, unlike the MDH data which is released at a two week delay. St. Louis County, however, is using the MDH data as these results are solidified and not likely to change as widely as Itasca’s method– which is why the state waits to release the data.

In Itasca County on Wednesday, the rate was 9.3. Then, a day later, it was increased to 9.9 as two cases came through as positive within Sept. 1-14 dates.

This delay and readjustment occurs due to delays in results. A person who is tested could wait up to a week to find their results. This then, adjusts the final data for the day the test was taken.

“Itasca County is doing a really great job keeping districts in the loop and informed on current data, trends, and tracing,” said Nashwauk-Keewatin Superintendent Brenda Spartz over email Thursday. “It is very important for schools to know if positive COVID cases are connected to the school in any way or not so that can be considered in making decisions.”

Where Nashwauk-Keewatin, through Itasca County, is working with current numbers, only hindsight can give the most accurate data. However, they are working proactively, versus reactively as is occurring in St. Louis County.

There are positives and negatives to each way, it is simply what each prefers.

The Northland Learning Center, located in Virginia, has been teaching in-person.

The religious, private schools in the area include Assumption Catholic School, Marquette Catholic School and Victory Christian Academy. These three schools are elementary and all remain in-person learning.

The St. Louis County Schools include: Cherry, North Woods, Northeast Range, South Ridge and Tower-Soudan. All will be remaining in-person.

“We have had a good beginning to the school year and continue work on building relationships with our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson over email Thursday. “We are glad they are back in the schools.”

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