As the fall semester is fast approaching, school districts will be deciding how to start the fall semester after Gov. Tim Walz and Minnesota health and education officials’ announcement on July 30. With guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health on COVID-19 cases per 10,000, schools will transition their approach throughout the 2020-21 school year based on the county’s cases over a two-week period.
Wadena-Deer Creek Public Schools will likely re-open, according to Superintendent Lee Westrum. The final decision will come on Aug. 17 after the school board and planning committee of 20 staff members meet to review feedback from parents, guardians and staff, according to Westrum and a Facebook post.
Parents and guardians will receive a survey on July 31 to indicate their preferred option for starting the school year.
“It’s not going to be business as usual but … we’re really looking forward to the opportunity to have the kids back in the building,” Westrum said. “You can’t replace in-person learning, and at the same time we’ve learned a lot about distance learning and e-learning and we will be prepared to go to that if we have to.”
Under any option the districts decide on, students can also choose distance learning with accommodations for teachers and staff wanting to work from home as well, according to the governor's press conference Thursday, July 30.
Westrum said the announcement is “pretty flexible and adaptable to meet local conditions” whether that be a current low case count or possible surge. In an email, Wadena County Public Health director Cindy Pederson said this aspect “is a positive for our rural area.”
Public Health will monitor the cases in Wadena County and Otter Tail, Todd and Becker counties since students from these counties attend area school districts, according to Pederson. Pederson said the cases from the area counties would not be added with Wadena County’s rate though “if there is a large issue in an adjoining county” this information would be shared with the school districts. Tri-County Health Care will be available to support, review the school’s plans and provide guidance on infection control, according to director of strategic marketing Andrew Ronningen.
“School re-opening will require an ongoing commitment of students, staff, families and the wider community to make it work. Public health guidelines will need to be followed closely. While there may be cases of COVID in school settings and the wider community regardless of the precautions taken, this plan includes methods to recognize and to support addressing concerns,” Pederson said in an email.
Pederson said “local responsibility” includes social distancing, wearing a face covering in public areas, washing your hands, avoiding touching your face, staying home if you are in the high risk category or are sick, and avoiding spaces and events with people in close proximity.
W-DC’s continued preparations include finalizing details for the selected option and health screening issues, according to Westrum.
“The biggest challenge is going to come when we have a positive test at the school whether it be a student or staff member,” Westrum said.
The state will use $430 million to fund face coverings for teachers, students and staff and increase testing capacity, cleaning measures and technology access. Students, faculty and staff will be required to wear face coverings for the in-person option.
“We teach for a living, so that’s our job, right, so we will do our best with teaching the kids about the importance of the masks and how to take care of them and all that but … especially for our smallest kids that’s going to be challenging,” Westrum said. “If that’s what it takes to have school then that’s what it takes.”
Local districts updates as of Aug. 1:
Bertha-Hewitt: Superintendent Eric Koep shared a local look at Todd County’s numbers that would impact the school’s decision in a video on Facebook. The school board will meet on Aug. 3 to finalize the district’s decision. A survey will also be shared. A distance learning coordinator will also be available.
Menahga: Superintendent Kevin Wellen said in a July 8 announcement that the Menahga school board intends to have in-person learning.
New York Mills: The New York Mills School planning committee will meet and release their plans for in-person learning. If distance learning works best for your family, call the district office. For more information, visit their Facebook page.
Staples-Motley: In a July 30 announcement, Superintendent Shane Tappe said the current plan is for in-person learning. A survey will also be available. The plans for each option can be viewed on their website.
Verndale: A reopening survey can be completed on their website.
As of August 4, the Minnesota Department of Health reports approximately 878,111 people have been tested with 57,162 positive cases, 50,426 patients no longer needing isolation and 1,620 deaths. Wadena County has 23 positive cases, Todd 420, Otter Tail 179 and Hubbard 32. Not all suspected cases of COVID-19 are tested, so this data is not representative of the total number of people in Minnesota who have or had COVID-19.
On the Pioneer Journal website from July 20 to 27, community members could participate in a poll answering the question, “What schooling option for the fall would you be most comfortable with?” Of the responses, 57% said in-person learning, 25% distance learning and 18% hybrid learning. The community also responded in Facebook comments which focused on schools being in-person because students need it for their mental health and structure as well as for parents because of work.
With the opportunity for students to return to in-person learning, two W-DC parents shared their excitement for the possibility and their thoughts on the health and safety measures required.
“I am very excited about the opportunity,” said Dayle Reinke. “I am not excited about the mask wearing. I’m very discouraged by that.”
Reinke is concerned about students not being able to see facial expressions and questions the benefits of wearing a face mask as well as the health issues from wearing a mask. Jessica Pinnella said she is “totally OK” with her four children returning for in-person learning after hearing about the regulations shared thus far.
Both Reinke and Pinnella said distance learning did not work well for their families, especially with two working parents as Pinnella said.
“My biggest concern would be that we end up going back to the distance learning because it is just such a struggle,” Pinnella said.
Throughout the planning period, WDC has worked on the challenges of acquiring masks and hand sanitizer, increasing technology access and creating ways for social distancing. The three options given by the MDE were described in a Facebook post on July 30 and by Westrum in a July 6 school board meeting including:
In-person learning: With students and staff in the building, there would be health screenings for staff and students, increased cleaning and hand hygiene, students heading to their classrooms upon arrival, passing periods in intervals and no large assemblies.
Hybrid learning: In addition to the above measures, students would need to follow strict social distancing, including spacing in classrooms. Students in K-6 would come every day and 7-12 students would come every other day or two days a week and complete distance learning the other days.
Distance learning: Students would learn at home with teachers providing lessons online along with packets. This model was used in the spring.
School is scheduled to start on Sept. 8.
If you are interested in distance learning, email elementary principal Louis Rutten at email@example.com or middle high school principal Tyler Church at firstname.lastname@example.org.