In a 4-2 vote, the Wadena-Deer Creek school board on Monday, Nov. 23, approved the transition to distance learning for pre-K-6th grade for two weeks in January and on Fridays starting Dec. 4. Distance learning is also extended for 7-12th grade students through Jan. 15.
As of Nov. 23, four elementary teachers are out due to positive COVID-19 tests as well as a kindergarten, third and fifth grade classes in distance learning. The school continues to meet with Wadena County Public Health, Tri-County Health Care and the Sourcewell Regional COVID Team on a weekly basis about updates and changes.
“As of right now, this is probably about the worst that we have seen it,” said Superintendent Lee Westrum.
One of the main reasons for distance learning after Christmas is the gathering of families during break, which increases the possible spread of the coronavirus as people are indoors and for long periods of time. Middle/high school principal Tyler Church said with the length of the break he is “afraid” about possible issues in January with things like staffing.
Meals and child care will be available during distance learning. Meals are free and will likely be delivered Jan. 4-15. Child care is free from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Tier 1 workers; email Jennifer Ness at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign-up. There can be about 50-60 students in child care.
School board members Melissa Seelhammer and Pete Hayes noted questions and concerns about the change and voted against the learning model transition.
“I think it places a big burden on families,” Seelhammer said. “We’ve been super fortunate to not have to do distance learning yet, where parents are having to choose whether they work or quit their jobs and take care of their kids and their learning.”
While the number of students in child care will be less than all students attending school, Seelhammer said students could still be exposed to the virus. Westrum, too, noted the difficulty of weighing these factors and the “really challenging” burden placed on families.
School board member Barb Tumberg said planning early will hopefully help parents and guardians. She also shares a concern with many about students’ social and emotional health.
“The Zoom meetings, yes, are a help they can see their friends, they can see their teachers but the lack of social interaction and activity, and unfortunately … that’s just the pits of the virus, you know, that it’s real hard to try to balance that,” Tumberg said.
The feedback Westrum, Church and elementary principal Louis Rutten have received from families include a few questions on child care, a work schedule and mental health though more responses come about sports changes.
On Nov. 18, Gov. Tim Walz paused sports for four weeks. Activities director and dean of students Norm Gallant emphasized several instances that showed him the importance of the pause, though he agrees with the mental health concerns.
With the number of students and staff members in quarantine or isolation across area districts, Gallant said sports like volleyball and football saw “disruption” in the number of players and schedules as well as consequences like parents needing to quarantine as well.
“With our activities, I think the important part to understand or to remember too is that our job is to keep the kids in school and to do everything that we can to not disrupt the educational process too,” Gallant said.
The 7-12th graders started distance learning on Nov. 16 with a block schedule of classes every other day and Fridays for individual meetings and finishing work. Students have Zoom meetings for their classes with about 25 minutes of instruction from the teacher and then time to complete their assignments with the teacher being available for the remainder of the period. Westrum and Church said parents are glad for the structured schedule.
Church said about 80-85% of students are logging on daily for their classes and the remaining 15-20% of students aren’t logging on since parents are not available to help. All 7-12th grade students have a Chromebook and all K-6 students have an iPad for distance learning. The district also has hotspots available.
After Thanksgiving, free meals at the middle/high school can be picked up from 7-8 a.m., 11:30 a.m.-12:45 p.m. or 4:30-5:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
What about other districts?
Verndale is discussing a distance learning period after the holidays, though Sebeka and Bertha-Hewitt are not, according to Westrum. Freshwater Education ALC and students at the building will have two weeks of distance learning after the holidays, as Tumberg said. New York Mills students in all grade levels are in distance learning until Dec. 4.
In other action
The board approved:
The hires of Kendel Roline (Elementary Nurse), Anita Small (Elementary Paraprofessional), Elise Kallevig (Junior High Tennis Coach), Noah Ross (C Boys’ Basketball Coach) and Jordan Anderson (C Girls’ Basketball Coach).
The resignations of Michelle Lunde (Elementary Paraprofessional) and Bridgette Ohrmundt (Elementary Paraprofessional).
Paying the district’s bills totaling $681,994.82.
Donations to the district totaling $5,528. Donations to student activities totaling $400.
A general fund transfer of $134,657.35 to the community service fund for preschool and child care costs. The 2020 budgeted amount for the deficit was $110,000. The deficit transfer was $184,000 last year.
Denying the request made by parents to waive the early entrance deadline of Aug. 1 for kindergarten students. The deadline is in place for parents who are interested in having their child start kindergarten before 5-years-old. One student has gone through the process over the past eight years, according to Westrum.
The capitalization policy on small purchases to $5,000 from $2,500. The change is to align the school district with government policies.
The issuance of certificates of election for Kent Schmidt, Dan Lawson and Tumberg.
A one-year lease agreement with Wadena County for the Deer Creek School. The county will use the space for court proceedings.
Nullifying a purchase agreement for the student built house.
A resolution for special school elections to be at the Maslowski Wellness and Research Center. A special election is not planned for this year; the resolution is an annual Minnesota law requirement.