IRON RANGE — After months of anticipation, most Iron Range schools will reopen in some form Tuesday for the first time since mid-March when the coronavirus pandemic altered the educational landscape, and almost all will be fully in-person unless individual students opted out.
On July 30, Gov. Tim Walz signed Executive Order 20-82 which implemented Minnesota's Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 School Year. The plan focuses on localized data on COVID-19 infection rates which allow schools to operate a learning model that is responsive to those rates.
There are three learning models: in-person, hybrid and distance learning. The higher the community's infection rate, the more restrictive learning models will be put in place. Recommendations are also made dependent on grade of students, with youngest students being most likely to stay in-person learning.
Infection rates are based on positive COVID-19 results during a 14-day period, per 10,000 people. At the range of 0-9 14-day case rate per 10,000 people, the policy recommends in-person learning for all students. For the range of 10-19, the policy recommends elementary students are in-person and middle and high school students are hybrid. For the range of 20-29, the policy recommends hybrid for all students. For the range of 30-49, the policy recommends hybrid for elementary students and middle and high school students distance learning. At the rate of 50 or higher, distance learning is recommended for all students.
As of Friday, the St. Louis County (SLC) COVID-19 Dashboard put the infection rate for greater SLC at 4.87 with all of SLC at 9.69 and Duluth at 12.9 for the weeks of Aug. 9 to Aug. 22. As stated above, these rates are per 10,000 people.
As of Friday, 947 people in SLC have tested positive, an increase of more than 100 since lasts week. There has been one additional death for a total of 24.
Schools were required to give families the option to choose distance learning, no matter what model the school has implemented and are encouraged by the state to “make all attempts to provide such communications orally and written in languages spoken in their respective school district or charter school.”
Locally, school boards have been approving these plans and districts have been posting them on their websites the last few weeks.
Safety measures are being put into place including the requirement that all students over the age of five wear a face covering while in the school buildings. Exceptions include students with a medical or mental health condition or disability which makes it unreasonable for the individual.
The Minnesota Department of Education does not have jurisdiction over private or tribal schools, including area parochial schools such as Marquette and Assumption Catholic Schools.
What follows are plans for most of the area school districts who responded to requests.
East Range Academy of Technology and Science (ERATS) will be starting this school year out in the hybrid model, at least for the first semester, said the school’s director Amy Hendrickson over the phone Tuesday.
“It is hard for parents to have to change, so we will be starting in the middle,” Hendrickson said.
ERATS students will be divided into two cohorts, with each in the classroom two days a week– Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. Those who may have missed a day or need extra support will be pulled in on Wednesday.
Each cohort will then be further broken down in groups of 10-15 students. “Those kids will work with one main teacher and one main para,” Hendrickson added. “We are trying to put siblings together so these groups won’t be divided by grade.”
She explained the rationale is to keep kids who are already together, together at school, to decrease possible exposure.
For the days the students are distance learning, there will be options for those who do and who do not have internet access. “Not all of our students are online and we will have paper and pencil options, too,” Hendrickson said.
ERATS will be trying to stay hybrid but if they need to move to the distance learning model, they will.
The Chisholm School District will begin their school year face-to-face.
“It is important for everyone to be flexible,” said Superintendent Dr. Janey Blanchard over the phone Tuesday. “It will be an interesting year.”
Blanchard said that the district will be notifying families of any changes through their instant alert system, over social media and through the school’s website. Letters will also be sent home. They hope to give families at least 24 hours notice of in-person, hybrid or distance learning changes.
“We are working with the local department of health with infection rate information,” Blanchard said, referring to how learning options are decided.
Chisholm students will be released 40-45 minutes earlier each day. This will give teachers time to work with those students who opted for distance learning.
The Floodwood school district will be starting in-person.
“We are going to have a weekly newsletter update, to keep parents informed of what is going on,” said Superintendent Dr. Rae Villebrun over the phone Tuesday. This will be sent to families through email, posted on the website and social media.
“We are going to be as normal as we can for our students while figuring things out as we go. We will be asking for grace as we navigate these changes.”
This small school does not have the support staff to provide a teacher specifically for distance learners. Instead, instruction will be happening in real time through virtually bringing these students into the classroom.
Villebrun explained that virtual students may have different login times or may have check-ins with teachers while the class is at lunch or recess.
“We want to be sure that our distance learners are receiving the same quality of education as those students in our building,” Villebrun said. There are many unknowns, including how much notice families will receive if learning models change. “I hope we can give parents a few days notice before changes, but we don’t know yet.”
Instead, Villebrun encourages families to monitor infection rates through the St. Louis County COVID-19 Dashboard on the county’s website. The last tab graphs the biweekly case rates for schools, and displays the information all schools will use when making their decisions.
The Ely School District will be starting the school year in-person.
“We have fairly small class sizes that will allow us to socially distance,” said Erik Erie, over the phone Tuesday night.
Erie said that high school students will be in cohort groups, having students stay in the same groups throughout the day to limit exposure.
A noticeable change for Ely students will be seen during lunchtime. Elementary students will eat in their classrooms and high school students will eat throughout the school including in the gym, cafeteria and outside. In the past, upperclassmen were allowed to leave campus. Now, all students will be required to remain on campus.
“For communities like Ely, the largest congregation of people will be in schools and we need to be smart,” Erie said. “The community has placed a lot of responsibility on us — that we are being safe, conscientious and limiting community transmission.”
By requiring students to stay on campus, community exposure will be limited.
Ely schools has an advisory council which meets weekly to discuss the evolving COVID situation and evaluate any learning model shifts. This is a group of stakeholders including students, teachers, parents and other community members.
If a learning model shift is needed, to a hybrid or distance learning model, Erie said they plan to have one transition day, to allow teachers and parents time to prepare.
“We’re trying to understand that parents are sending their most precious thing in their life, their children, to us,” Erie said. “It is incumbent on us to keep these children safe, as we do whenever they are in our schools.”
Visitors to the schools will be limited and by appointment only.
“This is a difficult time for all parents and we want to do the best we can for them, our students and community,” concluded Erie.
Mesabi East will be starting classes a week later.
“We are doing things a little bit different than other schools,” said Mesabi East Superintendent Gregg Allen, over the phone Thursday.
The elementary students, grade K-6, will be in-person. The high school students, grades 7-12, will be using the hybrid model.
High school students will be divided into two groups: A and B. Group A will attend school in-person Monday and Tuesday. Group B will attend school in-person Thursday and Friday. The days they are not in the building, students will be distance learning.
“Wednesday is a distance learning day,” Allen said. “However, we are keeping our options open for students who may have missed a day or need to catch up– especially to make up a lab.”
Entrance into the building will be by appointment only, with only invited students on campus on Wednesday and limited outsiders throughout the week.
The start date for the school year at Mesabi East School District has been pushed back a week, to Monday, Sept. 14. In this extra week, the distinct will be calling each individual family to discuss this school year and safety plans. Electronic devices will also be distributed.
“We’ve been one-to-one with electronic devices since 2012,” Allen said. “Our students and faculty are pretty good at using the devices.”
This confidence in technology and safety consciousness is reflected in the amount of families opting for distance learning. Allen said about 25 percent of students, some 250 in the 1,000 student population, have opted for distance learning.
Allen said there has also been some changes as the start of school approaches. Just this week, 15 students have changed back to classroom learning.
Earlier this summer, the district called all their families to discuss the learning options while other districts survey families online.
“This made a big difference in what we are doing,” explained Allen. “A lot of people were concerned about in-person learning and preferred a safer model...We also understood that school needs to be provided for K-6 grade for working parents.”
Allen was also logical about health and safety at the district level when the decisions were made concerning learning models.
“Mesabi East is one of the largest campuses on the range. We have one building, 1,000 kids and 125 staff members. We cannot handle these numbers and socially distance– at lunch, in the hallways, at the lockers– when there are that many people in the building,” Allen added. “We want to move into this slowly. If all goes well, we hope to move into in-person after the first quarter.”
He explained that 7-12 graders normally have a seven period day but now the day is divided into three, 120 minute blocks with what normally is covered in the first half of the day being covered in the first 4 ½ weeks and the second 4 ½ weeks covering the rest of the day.
“Our goal is to limit exposure to kids from kids and to and from staff.” Instead of being exposed to seven classes, high school students and teachers are only exposed to three.
There will be 10 minute pass times between each class and that time will be used to sanitize desks. Because only half of the class will be in the room at one time (as the other half will be distance learning at home), desks used will be rotated- allowing more time throughout the day for sanitization.
There will be a hand sanitizer station for everyone entering and leaving the building, “to keep home germs at home and school germs at school.”
In the elementary classrooms, plastic desk guards have been ordered, to further isolate germs.
“It is what it is,” said Allen of this school year. “Be patient. If you have questions or concerns, please call the school.” He cautioned that many rumors are being circulated throughout the community and on social media. “We are doing our best to provide facts. You should find facts from us, not on Facebook.”
When asked how and when families may be informed of changes to the learning model, say from hybrid to distance learning, Allen said, “We send instant alerts when there is a snowstorm and school is canceled. Surely we can do the same for COVID.”
“This has been a challenge,” Allen said. “This is my 37th year in education, and 30-something years in administration. This is the biggest challenge I’ve had. We need to provide the safest learning environment possible and provide the best learning we possibly can.”
On Thursday, the Rock Ridge School District’s administration hosted a Zoom session for the public to ask questions about this school year. This was the second such session and it was anchored by Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt.
Rock Ridge, including Virginia, Eveleth and Gilbert campuses, will be starting the year in-person. The school doors will be opened later this year, to prevent indoor gatherings. All campuses will open at 7:45 a.m., to students only. Classes start: Parkview Learning Center at 8:05 a.m., Roosevelt Elementary between 7:55 and 8 a.m., Virginia and Eveleth-Gilbert High Schools at 8:15 a.m., Gilbert Junior High at 8:05 a.m. and Nelle Sheen at 8:10 a.m.
Music instruction has changed this year. In years past, orchestra students from throughout the new district have practiced together. Now, students from different campuses cannot mix and orchestra will be taught for half of the year at each location. During the semester without orchestra class, students will receive individual or small group lessons.
Choir at Virginia High School has moved from the choir room to the auditorium where chairs are 12 feet apart. Only 20 students will sing at a time but in a 90 minute block, all students will have rotated in to sing.
In elementary schools, music lessons will focus more on instruments and percussion while shying away from singing.
Lisa Perkovich, principal at Virginia High School, discussed extracurricular clubs. “Currently, we have over 80 clubs and activities across the district. We have made a unified district decision to move all clubs virtual.” Perkovich explained that this will allow distance and in-person learners equal access to club participation.
School athletics was also part of the discussion with both Athletic Directors, JoJo Scott and Josh Lamppa, participating in the discussion.
“Things are changing every day,” Scott said. “We need to be flexible and both offices will try to keep you as updated as possible.” She added that everything is subject to change and seasons may be reduced, if necessary. “Call our offices at any time.”
Lamppa added that coaches are working really hard to protect student athletes but posed the question “What are they doing after practice? Are they being safe?”
If students are driving together in a vehicle, are they wearing face coverings? Lamppa said that the virus can spread and parents need to keep their kids safe when not at school or practice.
To this, Schmidt cautioned parents to be aware of how their child is socializing. “Think about parties. Who is going?” He said that gatherings often include students from other school districts and even neighboring states. These are potential transition hot spots for COVID-19. “Try to limit all situations when you kids are hanging out with other kids.”
“What if a student refuses to wear a mask? How will you keep my child safe?” asked one parent by emailing Schmidt.
“We will work with that student,” said Roosevelt Principal Dan Johnson. “We will have a conversation with them, the same as in any discipline situation. Then, we will follow the student handbook’s discipline policy.”
Administration acknowledged there are medical excuses for some students who cannot wear a facemask. This discussion, however, focused on the general population.
“There is nothing in the handbook that would automatically move them to distance learning,” said Perkovich on a follow up question on if the student would be removed from in-person learning. “There would be consequences as this would be insubordination. It would depend on the situation and the student.”
As in other discipline situations, parents would be contacted.
Each school has fit mask breaks into their schedule by bringing students outside- through recess, lunch and outdoor learning.
Another health safety measure put in place at Rock Ridge, with assignments increasingly provided through iPads. The distinct has one-to-one iPads for each K-12 student. By submitting assignments electronically, germs passed through handouts will be minimized.
Several of the principals offered advice to parents.
“My biggest advice to parents is to model patience and flexibility,” Perkovich said. “It will be a bumpy start of the year and we know that. Kids act what they see so model a positive attitude.”
“Things are constantly changing,” said Parkview Learning Center Principal Sheena Stefanich. “If there is an issue, contact the office. We will work with you.”
Johnson said that it was great to see students and families in the halls of Roosevelt during their recent open house. “Wear face masks, socially distance and frequently wash hands. All of this helps.”
The Hibbing School District will be starting their school year in-person.
“All information related to Covid is available on our Hibbing Schools Covid Site at https://covid.isd701.org,” said Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich over email Thursday. “If we were to have unplanned, last minute changes, we would update our site, relay a message through our Hibbing Schools Facebook page, #GoHibbing, and send a message to the community through our instant messaging system ParentSquare.”
Aldrich explained that each situation is different but the Minnesota Department of Education has directed schools “to make changes between scenarios within 24 hours.”
Aldrich offered this advice, “The community needs to know that we have worked extremely hard, since last March, to put together a comprehensive, rigourous, and student/staff safety focused Restart Plan. Although we feel we have anticipated for every possible scenario, no plan is perfect. We ask the community to understand that all of our decisions have been driven by what is best for students and staff. We care about all of the members of our school community, and are excited to welcome students back to our buildings!”
MI-B AND SLC
“School will be in-person for PreK-12 in both districts,” said Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Louis County Schools Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson said over email Thursday. “If there are any changes as we are in the new school year, we will notify parents via our Messenger system and using our Facebook pages. If we are changing from one plan to another, we will try to give parents as much notice as possible. We may take a day or two off between plans to allow teachers to prepare and to allow parents to make arrangements under the new plan. The Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) gives us five days to use in the school year to help with transitions from one plan to another.”
“We need to be flexible as we start the school year and as changes occur,” said Engebritson, offering advice to parents. “If we have a positive case of COVID, it does not necessarily mean that we will be changing plans or closing schools. The end goal is to keep kids in school as long as we can do so safely.”
North Woods is one school within the St. Louis County School District.
Principal John Vukmanich explained over the phone Wednesday that students who have opted into distance learning will be participating at different levels.
Students in 5-12 grades will be zooming live into their classrooms. Students K-2 will not be live streaming but instead utilizing pre-recorded resources. Students in grades 3 and 4 will be distance learning through a mixed means of both pre-recorded and zoom.
“Learning independence varies greatly throughout K-12 education,” said Vukmanich, explaining that the school and families will need to be flexible.
He offered this advice to parents, “The best advice that I can give to students and families is to do your best and realize that we have to be a little more flexible right now. We have been out of school for almost six months, and we need to adapt our systems to this new method of instruction and meet the needs of a diverse group of learners both in-person and remotely. Teachers will be working hard to teach kids who are here at school and also home on a device, while still doing what they do on a normal day (grading, lunch duty, preparing instruction for the next day, etc.). We ask that families work with us and support us as we adjust to wearing masks and staying socially distant in an environment that typically thrives on social interaction. We are trying to make school as normal as possible during an abnormal time and will do our best to support our families.”
Nashwauk-Keewatin is basing their decisions on MDE parameters and MDH information. They will be starting their school year in-person but with a slower transition into the new school year.
“We are doing something outside the box in the first week of school,” Superintendent Brenda Spartz said over the phone Friday. “We wanted to somehow give families and students the traditional open house, rite of passage.”
On Tuesday, each family is scheduled one hour between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., depending on their last name, to come into the schools, bring supplies and meet teachers.
“Wednesday and Thursday we are calling our orientation days,” Spartz said. All students have been assigned to either the orange group or blue group. Wednesday will be orange day orientation, with half of the students attending in-person learning. Thursday will be blue orientation day.
“We will spend those two days setting expectations, getting kids acclimated back to school and practicing new protocols and routines. How do we get our lunch? How do we move in the hallway? With only half of the students in the buildings it will be easier to teach these new things.”
Spartz said that not only is it important that students practice these new routines but for the adults to practice, too.
By Friday, all students will begin in-person education.
For any changes to the learning model, Nashwauk-Keewatin will be communicating with parents in a variety of manners including through automatic emails and texts, posts on the website and multiple social media platforms and through flyers.
“There are so many possible scenarios,” Spartz added, “but ideally we will be able to give parents at least a day notice of change.”
She said that parents have always been involved with their children’s school and education, but this year will be more important than ever to stay up-to-date.
“Parents need to stay connected to the school. Pay attention if the school sends information home. Read it thoroughly and ask questions.”
“Clean out backpacks!” Spartz advised. “There could be essential information stuffed in there.”