As of this moment, Crookston Public Schools can plan for in-person instruction

Mike Christopherson

As long as the rate of new COVID-19 positive cases in Polk County every 14 days stays within reasonable range of where it sits in the latest data provided Thursday afternoon to Crookston School District Superintendent Jeremy Olson by the Minnesota Department of Health, Crookston Public Schools can begin working toward starting the 2020-21 school year with in-person instruction for all students.

But the very latest numbers in Polk County could have the local district perilously close to the threshold included in the State of Minnesota’s “Safe Learning Program” announced by Gov. Tim Walz and his administrative team Thursday that would recommend in-person learning for elementary students and a “hybrid” mix of in-person and online, distance learning for high school students.

Figures provided to Olson by the MDH Thursday showed that from July 5 to July 18, the average of new positive COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people was 6.01. A county with an average of 0 to 9 per 10,000 people over the past 14 days is cleared to have all in-person instruction. 

But the 6.01 average is up from 3.86 from June 29 to July 11. “So we are trending up, in the wrong direction,” Olson said.

Add to that data from Polk County Public Health Thursday afternoon indicating that of the 124 confirmed COVID-19 cases reported in Polk County overall, 28 have been confirmed from July 23 to July 29, and it’s clear the number of new cases continues to trend in the wrong direction.

“Where we’re at right now doesn’t guarantee anything; it just shows what we’re able to work toward right now as far as how we start the school year. But it could be a totally different situation by the start of the school year,” Olson explained to the Times. “That’s a big reason why I think it’s so important that people follow the guidelines and mandates that have been put in place (by the state, including the mask requirement in public, enclosed locations). We all have to take this seriously. If you want the school year to start in the classroom and you want your kids and teachers to be able to stay in the classroom, you need to do your part. We all need to do our part.”

Thresholds in the Safe Learning Program’s recommended school guidelines, when it comes to the number of COVID-19 cases reported per county over the most recent 14 days per 10,000 people, are as follows:

• 0 to 9: All in-person instruction because of the “low level of community viral transmission”

• 10 to 19: In-person elementary instruction, hybrid learning mixing in-person and online, distance education for high school students

• 20 to 29: Hybrid model for all students

• 30 to 49: Hybrid model for elementary students, distance/online learning for high school students

• 50 or more: All distance/online learning due to “significant community viral transmission”

Olson noted that if the district exceeds the 0 to 9 category and moves into the 10 to 19 category, it doesn’t automatically mean that the entirely in-person instruction modality would immediately come to a screeching halt and high school students would embark on a hybrid learning model right away. Working closely with the state and public health, he said it would necessitate the start of an “important conversation” on what the school district should do next.

But the state will not stand idly by if it thinks a district is being irresponsible or reckless when it comes to student and staff health. If a district has significant new cases of COVID-19 over the most recent two weeks and is, as a result, jumping into new categories included in the Safe Learning Program, but doesn’t at all scale back its in-person learning ratio, Olson said the state will step in.

“They reserve the right to come in and pull the plug,” he said. “Everyone has to keep health and safety at the forefront, while also educating our kids in the best and most effective ways possible, given the current situation.”

During the press conference, Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan each said the Safe Learning Program also allows families who aren’t comfortable with in-person instruction to “opt for distance learning.” If a parent or child has underlying health conditions and the family doesn’t feel that going back to the classroom is the best way forward, Walz said, “there will be a plan” for kids to learn via distance/online, based on the parents’ decision.

Still much to determine

Olson said he will be authoring an informational article and disseminating it through district channels and the local media as soon as possible. In addition, a safety plan will be distributed to parents and families next week. In that plan will be a mask requirement that he said is in line with the state mask mandate. All K-12 students, teachers and staff will be required to wear masks while in the school building. For preschool students, he said, masks will be recommended but not required.

As for social distancing, much is to be done. In the classroom, the Safe Learning Program calls for “practical” social distancing, but not necessarily a “hard and fast” six-foot rule that everyone has become so accustomed to since March. Olson said leaders and staff in the public schools will use their best judgment as far as how many students will be allowed in a classroom, on a bus, per table in the cafeteria, in gym class, at passing time or in the halls before and after school, etc.

Before learning the details of the state’s recommendations Thursday, Olson was planning to convene a special school board meeting on Aug. 3 at which he was leaning toward recommending in-person instruction to start the school year in Crookston Public Schools. Given the state’s specific guidelines and range of criteria and thresholds, he’s not certain that a recommendation from him or board action is necessary at this point. “These are the state guidelines for us to abide by,” he said.

Two new planning days have been added to the school calendar, Aug. 11-12, for staff and administration to ramp up their plans for the start of the school year.

Then there are fall sports. Olson said the Minnesota State High School League, like so many other stakeholders and decision-makers, was waiting on Thursday’s state recommendations, too, before making any substantial determinations of its own. He said the various criteria and thresholds and potentially changing scenarios in individual counties every 14 days that are part of the Safe Learning Program might further complicate matters for the MSHSL when it comes to fall athletics.

“I think they were maybe looking for something that was more across-the-board as far as how things were going to unfold,” Olson said. “I’m not sure what they’ll do with today’s information.”