With most of its neighboring districts moving to distance learning for all students because of surging COVID-19 cases in the county, Carlton is attempting to keep its younger students in a hybrid model.

Most neighboring districts — including Cloquet, Esko, Wrenshall and Barnum — have all made the move to keep their students at home over the next few weeks. Carlton’s high school students will join them beginning next week, but elementary and middle schoolers will continue to attend school in a modified hybrid model.

Superintendent John Engstrom explained the district’s plan to keep as many kids in school during the board’s committee of the whole meeting Monday, Nov. 9.

“It’s a pretty scalpel approach,” Engstrom said. “As opposed to saying we’re going all distance K-12, we’ve tried to kind of carve out different things from each level.”

Engstrom said he and district Principal Ben Midge met with Carlton County Public Health officials to assess the situation in the local community and develop a plan to keep as many students in school as possible.

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“From that consult, we were able to put together the outline of a new learning model that would address when we would have to go to a more restrictive mode,” Engstrom said. “But we also tried to balance that in-person learning, especially at the younger levels.”

High school students will begin full distance learning on Monday with one exception. Group A will attend in-person on Nov. 16 and Group B will attend in-person on Nov. 19.

South Terrace Elementary School can operate in a hybrid model with all students due to the population of the school and the size of the building. Elementary students will be in-person everyday through Nov. 23. Learning packets will be given out on Nov. 24. Starting Nov. 30 elementary students will attend in-person four days a week with distance learning for all on Wednesday. The week of Nov. 30 will be used to determine if any grades will need to move to an A/B group hybrid model to keep classrooms at 50% capacity while maintaining 6 feet between students.

“In theory, we have the space to accommodate every kid in class every day,” Engstrom said. “(South Terrace custodian) Tom Rosen, Ben and I walked through South Terrace, room by room, and measured out and looked for what might need to be removed from certain classrooms.”

In addition, Engstrom said they planned to take advantage of some “unused or underutilized classrooms” during lunch, particularly for larger classes, to spread students out more since they are unable to wear masks while they eat.

No changes are currently planned for the middle school.

The hope is to begin working students back into the school after the Thanksgiving holiday. The district has urged families traveling for Thanksgiving to keep their children at home the week after the holiday.

Carlton is also considering a two-week distance learning period at the end of winter break. A final decision will be made by Dec. 17.

While the district is keeping as many kids in school as possible, board chair LaRae Lehto said parents need to be prepared if there is an outbreak among students or staff.

“John and I have been talking about this over the last week or two, knowing that the numbers were going to go up,” Lehto said. “Right now, we're not having the staffing shortage that some of the other districts are seeing, but it is possible that that could happen. As much as John and Ben are trying to have a model to keep kids in the classroom, everyone needs to be put on notice that that may not be feasible.”

Duluth News Tribune reporter Adelle Whitefoot contributed to this report.