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Why one Minnesota district decided to keep elementary students in school, even as COVID-19 cases climb across the state

Many school district leaders across Minnesota have decided to shift all students to distance learning. But St. Michael-Albertville has not for its elementary students. Here’s why. 

A number of districts are looking to retain some degree of in-person learning.
A number of districts are looking to retain some degree of in-person learning.
Photo by Taylor Wilcox on Unsplash

Across Minnesota, many families and educators are in the midst of adjusting to a single learning model. With COVID-19 case rates on the rise — and public health officials warning those numbers will surge if people travel and gather over the holidays — many school district leaders have decided to shift their hybrid and in-person students to distance learning. 

That list includes the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, along with the majority of metro-area districts and a number of districts in Greater Minnesota. Both the St. Paul and the Minneapolis districts began the year in a fully distanced learning and have paused phasing in on-site learning. 

A number of districts, however, are retaining some degree of in-person learning — a decision backed by Gov. Tim Walz, who’s avoided mandating any one particular school format so far. 

One of those is St. Michael-Albertville, located northwest of the Twin Cities. There, secondary students (grades 5-12) shifted from a hybrid model to a full distance learning model on Nov. 23. But students in pre-K through grade 4 will continue with in-person learning. 

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When explaining that decision, Superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault pointed to the state’s safe learning plan, which prioritizing in-person learning for the youngest students for three reasons: the low transmission rates among this age group; the greater burden placed on families with younger children; and the greater difficulty distance learning poses for that group. 

“That safe learning plan the state puts out clearly says we are supposed to give priority to our youngest learners,” Foucault said. “That’s what we decided to do.”

Prioritizing in-person for elementary students

All elementary students in the district will continue on-site learning across three elementary buildings and an early learning center. But they’ll still experience some key COVID-19 safety protocol updates on Monday, when the district finishes rolling out its “more restricted in-person learning model,” Foucault said. 

Superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault
Superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault
That includes two key elements: the district will begin operating it’s school buses at 50 percent capacity to allow for better spacing between passengers, which is not an official requirement of districts operating in an in-person model. They’ll also be ramping up efforts to maintain the 6-foot social distancing practice inside of the elementary buildings — another precaution not technically required. 

“For the most part, even though it’s an in-person model, we’ve been following the 6-feet of social distancing,” Foucault said, noting this is made possible because they have some newer, roomier buildings in the district. 

The district has space at its elementary buildings to operate at 50 percent classroom capacity, she said. For the third- and fourth-grade classes, which are a bit larger in several of the district’s elementary schools, they plan to split those cohorts into learning pods that can further be distributed across the space, once they transition these grades to a hybrid model.

In keeping in-person learning for elementary students, Foucault says the district has followed the five-step decision making process provided by the state. 

First is a step most people are familiar with: using county-level COVID-19 case rate data to set a base learning model. But that data input is not driving school model decisions all by itself. “Many think: How could you possibly still be in school? And why aren’t you following the 14-day COVID-19 case rate number?” she said. “Well, that’s one piece of data.”

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Foucault also looks at community-level case-rate data from Wright County Public Health every Thursday to get a more granular look at case rate data in St. Michael and Albertville, the two communities where most of the district’s students live.

The district updates its own COVID-19 dashboard every Tuesday, inputting internal case numbers as well. So far the district has had a .55 percent COVID-19 case rate for students and a .95 percent case rate for staff. In total, the school has logged 108 positive COVID-19 cases among students since the start of the school year. 

Notably, 36 of those cases were logged just this past week, which Foucault referenced in talking about her fourth consideration: a look at the epidemiology of each case. Working with state, regional and local public health officials — including the local teachers union and a district health coordinator —  the district pins down the origins of each positive case through contact tracing. Through this, they’ve found that not a single case has originated inside of the school, Foucault says. 

Lastly, per state guidance, the district tracks the percent of students and staff who are presenting flu-like or COVID-like symptoms. If that number, combined with a COVID case count, reaches approximately 5 percent, it would prompt a shift to a more restrictive learning model, Foucault says. But so far, the highest that count has gotten in the district was 3 percent, last week, and Foucault said that number includes many staff and students with cold-like symptoms who end up testing negative for COVID-19. 

Staffing issues prompt distance learning for middle schoolers

Concern about COVID-19 cases among students and staff also didn’t drive the district’s recent decision to shift all students in grades 5-12 from a hybrid to a distance learning model. Rather, it was driven by a substitute teacher shortage — a logistical issue that’s commonly cited among districts that have pivoted fully to distance learning in recent weeks. 

Staff who have been exposed to COVID-19 consult with the school nurse, who decides whether or not they need to self-quarantine at home, and it’s been common to have 15 to 20 unfilled absences a week, just among certified staff, Foucault said. That means she’s stepping into the front office, the cafeteria and the classroom to help people are out — as are other school administrators and even two board members.

In anticipation of an increased need this school year, Foucault had her human resources director get an early start on building up a local substitute teacher pool. They secured 20 and made it through September and October with few staffing issues. “But when November hit and people were inside more — and there were more hockey tournaments, there were basketball tournaments, people were out and about and, I think, had some COVID fatigue — then our numbers, for quarantining, really skyrocketed,” Foucault said. “And when they did, we weren’t able to staff our buildings.”

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So they made the decision to shift all secondary students to distance learning to free up more substitute teachers who could then be relocated to elementary buildings. The vast majority of elementary teachers who are quarantining are doing so out of an abundance of caution, she says. And if they’re not feeling sick, they’re able to continue teaching from home, while a sub helps supervise students on-site. So far, they’ve utilized this strategy for both middle schools and one high school.

The district also held a short-call substitute teacher recruitment and onboarding session one night last week, inviting all community members with a four-year degree to apply and increasing daily pay from $115 to $150 dollars. A total of 28 people attended the session. 

A former biology and chemistry teacher herself, Foucault says she enjoys digging into the COVID-19 data each day. And while state health officials warn that the numbers will continue to increase through the holiday season, she remains hopeful that they’ll be able to retain some degree of in-person learning for elementary students. 

To help her reach that goal, she recently sent a letter to all elementary parents — a plea to stay mindful of state public health guidance, and to take it seriously. “I think we can do this together,” she said. “But if people don’t wear face masks, if they don’t limit the indoor and outdoor gatherings, we’re not gonna be in school. I won’t jeopardize the health and safety of our students and our staff.”