MOUNTAIN IRON — A “quick increase” in coronavirus cases at Mountain Iron-Buhl schools will bring the district to what the Minnesota Department of Health describes as a “reset” — meaning in-person learning at the schools will close until at least Monday, Nov. 2.

MI-B Superintendent Dr. Reggie Engebritson confirmed the change in learning plans in an email late Wednesday night, writing that MI-B will not have school Monday, Oct. 19 and Tuesday, Oct. 20 for teacher planning days. The district will resume distance learning on Wednesday, Oct. 21 through Friday, Oct. 30, she said, citing a “quick increase of positive COVID-19 cases” since last week.

“We hope to reduce the number of positive cases from our staff and students and return to in-person learning Monday, Nov. 2,” Engebritson wrote. “We have been doing in-person learning since September 8.”

In an email to parents at MI-B, obtained by the Mesabi Tribune, Engebritson said five more positive cases were reported Wednesday and at least 10 in “less than a week.” Engebriston wrote that the district intends to have families quarantine when possible.

Across St. Louis County on Thursday, the new infection rate per 10,000 residents was 35.12 in Duluth-area schools and 18.36 — a drop by more than one point — in Greater St. Louis County districts. Itasca County on Thursday reported a rate per 10,000 of 52.4.

The Minnesota Department of Health reported 1,108 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday and 19 new deaths. St. Louis County recorded 53 confirmed cases, two probable cases and one additional death from the virus.

Students across Minnesota are already off school Thursday and Friday for MEA break and while schools are closed for in-person activities, MI-B will not be providing childcare and will be contacting parents about picking up class materials and iPads early next week.

“We will need the number of cases within our school to go down in order to return to in-person learning,” Engebritson wrote parents, asking them to inform them of positive cases between now and Oct. 30. “But it appears we have a spread of the virus within our school and we need to eliminate it.”

Between last Friday to Wednesday, there were 11 confirmed cases of COVID in both students and staff at Mountain Iron-Buhl.

When asked if the transmissions occurred within the school building, Engebritson said they did not know. “Some positive cases were the close contacts of others who were positive. Some could have come from community spread,” she said over email Thursday.

Although the district is unable to go into specifics of who was confirmed due to privacy, families were notified if their child(ren) were in close contact with someone who tested positive.

Engebritson said these were the only 11 cases at Mountain Iron-Buhl this school year and as far as they know, no one has been hospitalized. “All positive cases are in quarantine, as well as the close contacts.”

With each positive case, the superintendent is in contact with the St. Louis County Public Health liaison for northern St. Louis County who then reported the spike in cases to the Minnesota Department of Health. Wednesday they were busy with emails and a Zoom meeting.

“MDH recommended to do the reset and I agreed. I notified the school board of this recommendation and had their support. I then notified all of the staff and then the families.”

When asked about the reset, Engebritson said, “This is a time to let everyone be at home so that if more cases develop, they do not have close contacts with others at school and infect more people. The hope is that we can lower the number of positive cases and get everyone back to good health to return to school.”

The district is working with their health and safety expert from the Institute for Environmental Assessment, Inc. who will do a post-cleaning assessment and compliance audit before students are back in the building. Engebritson added, “With students and staff out of the building we can open our HVAC system up and get as much fresh air in as possible during this time frame.”

When asked how Engebritson feels about the decision to reset, she said, “I feel good about the decision and I think it was the right decision to make. The health and safety of our students and staff is top priority. As the positive cases continued to come in, I knew we needed to do something different. I am hopeful that we can return to in-person learning on November 2 and stay that way for the rest of the school year. I want the public to know that we are doing everything in our power to keep everyone safe. I try to communicate with all staff and families often during this pandemic, and I feel that they know I am looking out for the health and safety of everyone in our school. We want our students in school where they can learn and make connections with teachers and peers for a well-rounded school experience. I am confident that this is truly a reset and we will get back on track soon.”

Even though the superintendent is shared with St. Louis County Schools District No. 2142, this reset will only affect the Mountain Iron-Buhl district. St. Louis County Schools (Cherry, North Woods, Northeast Range School, South Ridge and Tower-Soudan) have only had one case in their district and that was in September. All of their students will remain in-person learning.

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