Area schools are already being forced to re-evaluate their learning model as the first week of school concluded with reports of increased infection rates in greater St. Louis County.

The infection rate per 10,000 people for Aug. 16-29 is 10.87 for greater St. Louis County schools, which is higher than the 9.90 rate of Duluth, for that same time period and up from just under 5 in rural areas last week. These rates are updated every Thursday.

“We were cautioned by area health officials that our rate will probably remain over 10 for the next two weeks due to this spike, which has been seen in long-term care facilities and one over Labor Day weekend,” said Hibbing Superintendent Richard Aldrich over the phone Thursday.

Once the 14-day case rate increases to 10, the state recommends districts discuss keeping elementary students in-person while moving middle and high school students to a hybrid model.

According to a letter sent to parents of the Rock Ridge School District, “The jump from 4.87 last week to 10.87 this week is in large part due to outbreaks in several long-term care facilities,” wrote Superintendent Dr. Noel Schmidt. The letter stated that because there is no strong connection between this outbreak and schools, Rock Ridge is not yet changing from in-person learning for all students.

However, other area districts are using this same information to make a different decision.

The Hibbing School District chose to alter its model based on the infection rate. It canceled school Friday for 7-12 graders to give teachers time to prepare for a transition.

Hibbing is employing a hybrid learning model for 7-12 grades, starting Monday.

“The board adopted the Restart Plan in Aug., which follows the criteria set by the Minnesota Department of Education based on biweekly numbers from the county,” Aldrich said.

“My board unanimously felt that we created a plan, we need to be transparent with the community and follow the plan,” Aldrich continued. “Other factors that played into this decision is that we have a number of students who work at long care facilities.”

Hibbing High School offers a course in which students can become a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA), a basic requirement for many long-term care facilities. “We had to ask ourselves, Are we doing our due diligence by ignoring these numbers that came out from the county?”

Aldrich said county health workers estimated that there could be infection rates of over 10 for the next two weeks, accounting for the spike in long-term care facilities and then Labor Day celebrations. He said, the best guess is that then numbers will come down to allow for in-person learning.

Neighboring Chisholm is remaining in-person.

“Our numbers for Chisholm are still in the range for face to face,” said Superintendent Dr. Janey Blanchard over email Thursday.

Ely is remaining in person, as was decided Thursday by the Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council. “The decision was made to stay with the recommendation from St. Louis County Public Health and stay with in-person learning while we wait for another round of data,” explained Ely Superintendent Erik Erie over the phone Friday. This group meets Thursdays, and as needed, to discuss this decision.

The district does not yet have their Chromebooks, which makes the idea of distance learning more daunting. As Erie said, “Hybrid means distance learning three days a week.”

By the end of the month, they hope to have one-to-one Chromebooks for all 3-12 students and iPads for K-2 students.

Floodwood is shifting learning models. “Our learning model is moving toward our scenario 2 on Monday, September 14th, but not fully implementing the hybrid model,” said Superintendent Dr. Rae Villebrun on Thursday over email. “The difference between moving toward scenario 2 and actually using scenario 2 is the high school will not move to an A/B schedule, students will remain in the building on Wednesday, and the cafeteria will be utilized with strict social distancing.”

For Floodwood students and staff this means they will remain in-person, however, larger classes will be split with another adult supervising in a different part of the building. Also, the cafeteria will only be used by elementary students while high schoolers will receive room assignments for dining.

Mesabi East planned to start school in the hybrid model and have delayed beginning the school year until Monday. “With the COVID-19 greater Saint Louis County number being over 10 we believe we are in line with providing a safe school for students and staff,” said Superintendent Gregg Allen over email Thursday.

Nashwauk-Keewatin follows infection rates for Itasca County. Last week, Itasca’s infection rate was 5.53. Currently, that rate is 9.96 and “we will remain all in-person at this point,” said Superintendent Brenda Spartz over email Thursday.

Northland Learning Center is staying in-person. “The NLC will not be changing from it's full in-person model at this time,” said Executive Director Brian Yuretich over email Thursday. “In working with public health, we are finding the cases are not closely connected to the schools, so we will not be adjusting with the increases.”

Mountain Iron- Buhl and St. Louis County Schools are remaining in-person. “Because the increase in numbers was due to cases at long-term care facilities, there is not a strong connection to schools,” said Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson over email Thursday. “Minnesota Dept of Education and Minnesota Dept. of Health, plus St. Louis County Public Health advises us to stay the course with our learning plan. We have had a great start to the new school year! And we look forward to each new day!”

When asked if one campus may change while others don’t, Engebritson said, “Yes, that could happen, depending on what the virus is doing in each school community.” It is possible that Cherry could be utilizing a different learning model than Tower-Soudan, even though they are in the same school district.

Despite the uncertainty of schooling in the era of COVID, students are happy to be back in the classroom for the first time in six months.

“I have heard zero complaints about masks or processes — I think these kids are just so very happy to be back in school where they can see their friends and get back into the routine of things,” said Marquette Principal Lisa Kvas, over email Thursday.

She also explained that Marquette students are remaining in person, except for those few who opted for distance learning for health reasons.

•••

Assumption Catholic School In-person

Cherry In-person

Chisholm In-person

ERATS Hybrid

Ely In-person

Floodwood Moving toward Hybrid

Hibbing In-person for K-6, Hybrid for 7-12

Marquette In-person

Mesabi Area Learning Center Hybrid

Mesabi East In-person for K-6, Hybrid for 7-12

Mountain Iron-Buhl In-person

Nashwauk-Keewatin In-person

North Woods In-person

Northeast Range School In-person

Northland Learning Center In-person

Rock Ridge In-person

South Ridge In-person

St. Louis County Schools In-person

Tower-Soudan In-person

Victory Christian Academy In-person

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