The Esko School Board updated changes to the district's reopening plan at the regular meeting Tuesday, Aug. 25.
The board approved three plans at a special meeting on Aug. 18, which follow guidelines set by the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education, Superintendent Aaron Fischer said.
The school is required to inform parents which model the school will be opening with at least one week before school starts. The first day of school is Tuesday, Sept 8.
The three learning models are all in-class, a hybrid of in-class and distance learning, or all distance learning. State guidelines require every school to provide distance learning the entire year, allowing families to opt in if they would prefer their children don't attend with the in-class or hybrid models.
MDH posts the 14-day COVID-19 case rates in each county every Thursday. The data includes the number of cases over 14 days per 10,000 people according to when the infected person was tested, the MDH document said. That data lets the district know which learning plan to use, Fischer explained.
At the Tuesday meeting, the board unanimously approved bringing back students in grades 7-12 with the hybrid learning model.
Fischer explained that the board members took into consideration the higher cases of COVID-19 in neighboring St. Louis County, which has a rate of 11.55 case per 10,000 residents as of Thursday, Aug. 20. He said there are currently 118 students open enrolled into Esko School District from St. Louis County.
"A fair amount of our staff comes from St. Louis County also," Fischer said. "Both counties are going up, and St. Louis County is already over, so we decided to go with the more conservative approach."
Grades kindergarten through sixth grade will begin the school year in person, Fischer said.
The school board granted Fischer and acting board chair Jeff Salo the authority to change learning models without consulting the board at a previous meeting. The officials said this would happen if the case rate went up and the district needed to move to another option.
“I wish I could wave a magic wand and make it all go away, but I can't,” Salo said.
The in-person learning model would include normal classes with enhanced safety protocols per the MDH and MDE guidelines, such as wearing masks, said Fischer.
He said parents should note that the early release day would be 2:30 p.m. Monday instead of Wednesday with the in-person option.
According to the district's hybrid model, students would be divided into three groups.
Group A includes students in grades seven through 12 whose last names begin with the letters A through K. Students in this group would attend classes at school on Tuesdays and Thursdays, explained Fischer.
Group B is students in grades seven through 12 whose last names begin with the letters L through Z. They would attend class at school Wednesdays and Fridays.
Group C would be kindergarten through second grade students and special education students. They will be on campus Monday through Friday, according to the hybrid plan.
Groups A and B will do distance learning each Monday to allow maintenance staff time to deep clean, said Fischer. He added that teachers will also use that day to plan for classes that week.
The school district is opening the 2020-21 year with a mixed hybrid plan, or level two, Fischer said. That means students in grades three through six will attend school under the in-person learning model, while those in grades seven through 12 will be in the hybrid model. If the district switches to the full hybrid plan, students in third through sixth grade would fall into group A or B according to their last name.
“This is all new to us,” Fischer said. “We are trying to run a school during a pandemic, a pandemic that we don't know if it's going to get better or worse or go on for years.”
A schedule and instructional videos will be posted by teachers every Monday in the hybrid learning model, as well as for distance learning students, according to the plan.
Fischer said distance learning students can watch classes online during the regular class hours or watch recorded lessons later. He said it will provide consistency with the teachers, as well as keep the students engaged in their classes.
The Esko plan requires distance learners to enroll for a full semester at a time. If a student wishes to transition back into school, it needs to be done between semesters, Fischer said.
Students and staff in the school will follow the safety guidelines required by MDH and MDE, Fischer said. There will be strict social distancing and safety protocols in place. Students and staff will have to wear masks, unless they have a medical condition that exempts them. He encouraged students to bring a water bottle, which can be refilled at the contactless bottle filling station during the school day.
The floors in the hallways will be marked and divided to help manage the flow of the students between classes, he said.
Other safety protocols include not allowing elementary students on the playground in the morning before school and not allowing older students to enter the school before class to socialize in the hallways, Fischer said.
He said the school doors will be open from 8 a.m. to 3:20 p.m.
Lunches will be pre-packaged for students. Students cannot use the microwave to heat any food due to the touch screen, said Fischer.
The district's ventilation system underwent significant updates a few years ago, Fischer said. In the fall when weather permits, doors and windows will be opened during the school day to help improve air circulation.
Families who know they can consistently drop their children off and pick them up from school are asked to contact transportation director Laurie Groth at firstname.lastname@example.org, said Fischer. Should the district move to the hybrid model, buses would only be allowed to be filled to 50% capacity, and parents who could drop off and pick up their kids would help the district.
At the meeting on Tuesday, Fischer told the board the district needs more families to commit to drop off and pick up their children in order to comply with the 50% capacity on buses. He said a less desirable option is to run a shuttle bus. Students who would ride the shuttle would need to leave school 30 minutes early. It will also cost the district more money to run the shuttle, Fischer said.
"I don't like them (shuttle buses) because they cut into class time," Fischer said.
The reopening plan is on the school's website.
This story was updated at 11:37 a.m. Aug. 26 to reflect new information from the Esko School District's regular school board meeting. It was originally posted on Aug. 20 at 3:44 p.m.