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Why some Minnesota school districts haven’t yet gone back to in-person learning

A few districts and charter schools plan to be in distance learning for at least several more weeks, including the largest district in Greater Minnesota: Rochester.

In Rochester, middle and high school students aren’t coming back to in-person learning until April 5. Secondary students are currently participating in distance learning.
In Rochester, middle and high school students aren’t coming back to in-person learning until April 5. Secondary students are currently participating in distance learning.
MinnPost photo by Walker Orenstein

When Gov. Tim Walz announced in mid-February that all middle and high school students could return to classrooms, he said he expected every school to offer “some form” of in-person education by March 8.

That informal deadline passed Monday, and, according to state data, 90 percent of schools are holding at least part time in-person learning for K-12 students. The exceptions are largely inside of the Twin Cities metro area, where districts like Minneapolis and Roseville have yet to bring secondary students back to classrooms.

Those metro schools have drawn the ire and frustration of some in the GOP, who want to see all schools back in person for all grades, five days a week.

But some teachers and parents have worried about the spread of COVID-19 in schools, especially among older children who transmit the disease at higher rates. And not every school outside of the metro area has returned middle and high school students to the classroom. A few districts and charter schools plan to be in distance learning for at least a little while longer, including the largest district in Greater Minnesota: Rochester.

Many districts return to in-person classes

On Tuesday, about 89 percent of school districts and charter schools that have secondary students were offering some form of in-person learning to them, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Education.

Scientists say classes can be held relatively safely in tandem with strict health precautions. And across Greater Minnesota, many districts were offering classes earlier than March 8. Erik Erie, Superintendent of Ely Public Schools, said his district returned to in-person learning, five days a week, more than two weeks ago. The Ely district first brought secondary students back around Jan. 12 for a hybrid learning model that included some remote and some in-person classes. Soon after, they switched to in-person learning. “We came back as early as we could,” Erie said.

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His district, which started the year with about 565 students, has small class sizes. Erie said that means physical distancing requirements are easier to follow than in bigger, busier school districts.

The Ely district first brought secondary students back around Jan. 12 for a hybrid learning model that included some remote and some in-person classes.
MinnPost photo by Greta Kaul
The Ely district first brought secondary students back around Jan. 12 for a hybrid learning model that included some remote and some in-person classes.
One of those bigger districts is Duluth, where district superintendent John Magas said all grades won’t have in-person learning until April 1st, when secondary students will return to the classroom four days a week.

The district has had hybrid learning, however, starting some in-person classes with 6th, 9th and 12th graders on Monday, and then phasing in 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th graders for hybrid classes starting March 15. 

Magas said when Walz made his announcement, the district did speed up its timeline to reopen classrooms a bit. But even though state officials said districts didn’t need to transition to in-person learning in phases as they had in the past, the district already had plans to do so and thought it would be a good to slowly build towards having more people in the buildings.

The return to in-person classes was also built around the district’s spring break because officials thought it would be a good transition point, and the slow roll allowed more teachers to get vaccinated. Magas said nearly all teachers who want a vaccine have been vaccinated.

Monday was the first day all school year secondary students were in the building for in-person learning outside of some tutoring sessions. “It’s a huge thrill for us to be able to have secondary students walking our halls and learning in our classrooms,” he said.

Dissatisfaction with hybrid model in Rochester

Not every district in Greater Minnesota has in-person classes right now. The Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian School District, which is known as BOLD, has distance learning for preschool-6th grade from March 4-16 and distance learning for 7-12th graders between March 3 and 16. A hybrid schedule begins March 17.

District Superintendent Dale Brandsoy did not return messages, but Forum News reported March 1 the district returned to hybrid learning after 11 students tested positive for COVID-19. Later news reports said the district flipped to distance learning shortly after. A March 11 update on their site says 124 students and three staff were quarantined and 26 students and one staff had tested positive. 

State guidance says if a school reports 5 percent of staff and students have COVID-19 symptoms or have the disease, they’re “strongly encouraged to discuss” whether they should shift to more remote learning.

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In Rochester, middle and high school students aren’t coming back to in-person learning until April 5. Secondary students are currently participating in distance learning.

On Feb. 2, well before Walz changed guidelines for middle and high school students, the district had made its plan to start in-person classes in April. Even after Walz said districts could return quickly, and didn’t need to phase in students, Dan Kuhlman, president of the local teachers union, said many in Rochester felt it best to take a few weeks to prepare and get up and running. Kuhlman said there are logistical challenges such as setting up food services, busing and canvassing families to learn how many students wanted to return to in-person classes.

One reason students are returning in early April is because it’s the beginning of a new quarter. Students can wrap up end-of-quarter exams without a change in learning model and then shift to in-person classes.

Gov. Tim Walz visiting students at Wyoming Elementary School on Sept. 8, 2020.
Office of Governor Tim Walz & Lt. Governor Peggy Flanagan
On Feb. 2, well before Gov. Tim Walz changed guidelines for middle and high school students, the district had made its plan to start in-person classes in April.

A survey of staff and input from students also found a dislike of hybrid learning, that it was viewed as something of a worst-of-both-worlds approach. “It just seems to be more complicated for people at this point,” said Jessica Garcia, a school board member, in the Feb. 2 board meeting

Kuhlman also said waiting a bit longer to get more teachers vaccinated does help a return to school run more smoothly. If teachers are exposed to a student with the virus, but they are fully vaccinated, they don’t have to be quarantined, disrupting classrooms and schedules.

The district brought back elementary students earlier, in large part because data from county officials showed less transmission among younger children. But spread of COVID-19 in high school sports and other data showed teenagers are more likely to carry and transmit the disease.

Jean Marvin, who chairs the Rochester School Board, said at the February meeting that the district’s goal “is to get our students back and keep them there.” 

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“If we have one secondary teacher who tests positive and has to quarantine, that person is taking out 150 students,” Marvin said. “Because that teacher has 150 students throughout the day. And it gets to be the ripple effect that can happen very quickly in a secondary situation.”

In early February, few teachers were vaccinated. But now, every staffer with direct contact with kids should have at least their first vaccine dose by the time in-person learning is back, Kuhlman said.

Walz announced Monday that nearly 55 percent of Minnesota teachers, school staff and child care providers had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, meaning even more are vaccinated now. Roughly 70 percent of Minnesotans age 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose.

The district and teachers worked with Olmsted County public health officials, as well as a Mayo Clinic physician on reopening plans, Kuhlman said. It also has a task force that meets regularly to look at outbreaks and take up other issues.

Kuhlman said he still has some concerns with a return to school. He said he worries some schools can adequately distance students. But he said sanitation and mask wearing shouldn’t be an issue. Middle and high school students will have in-person classes five days a week starting April 5.

 “I can’t emphasize enough how much staff really want kids back in,” Kuhlman said. “They want to do it safely, because they don’t want to have rolling outages.”