A Cook school's secondary grades were placed on the Minnesota Department of Health outbreak list Thursday after it reported five COVID-19 cases in the past 14 days.

North Woods School, part of the St. Louis County Schools district, will begin distance learning Monday.

A school building is put on the list if it reports five or more confirmed cases of COVID-19 in students or staff who were in a building while infectious during a two-week reporting period. The building is removed after 28 days of no new positive tests.

St. Louis County Schools Superintendent Reggie Engebritson said all students in the district will begin distance learning one week before winter break and then will continue distance learning for one week after the break, returning Jan. 11.

Engebritson, also the superintendent for Mountain Iron-Buhl Public Schools, said its students will also switch to distance learning for the week before and the week after winter break.

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Engebritson said this change is being made after St. Louis County Public Health officials made the recommendation due to the upcoming holidays.

Both school districts will continue in-person learning in January, with the hopes of finishing the school year that way, Engebritson said.

During a call Wednesday with superintendents, Carlton County public health officials asked their schools to not make any learning model changes until after the first of the year. Cromwell-Wright Public Schools is the only district in the county holding in-person classes for all students.

Though COVID-19 case numbers in the Northland have continued a downward trend, there is still fear of a surge from Thanksgiving Day as well as in January after the Christmas break.

"It is the recommendation from the Minnesota Department of Health and local public health to consider distance learning during this potentially high-risk time filled with holiday gatherings and high rates of unchecked community transmission," said Aubrie Hoover, senior public health educator with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services.

Hoover said gatherings during the holidays are especially concerning after there were several outbreaks in schools following social gatherings during Halloween, leaving many schools without sufficient staff.

Hoover said given the recommendations, some schools decided to begin distance learning following Thanksgiving while other schools, such as Engebritson's schools, have decided to offer distance learning one week before winter break and one week after.

"Many schools are working to keep their faculty and students safe and avoid further outbreaks by remaining in distance learning at least 14 days — the incubation period of COVID-19 — following Christmas or 14 days following New Year’s Eve," Hoover said. "There are already several consultations scheduled with the schools, local public health, and MDH for reevaluation; with everyone working behind the scene to bring faculty and students back safely.'

As of Thursday, 20 new school buildings were added to the list and four were removed for a total of 304. No other Northland schools were added to the list and none of the four removed were in the Northland.

From Nov. 29 through Dec. 5, there were 996 more positive COVID-19 cases in schools statewide, with 682 new cases among staff and 314 new cases among students. Statewide, 78 more school buildings reported at least one new case of COVID-19.

From Nov. 22 through Dec. 5, 471 school buildings reported one confirmed case of COVID-19, 269 reported two to four confirmed cases and 26 reported more than five.

Local COVID-19 numbers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-verified 14-day case rates per 10,000 residents around the Northland for Nov. 15-28 were:

  • 142.1 in Aitkin County.

  • 185.99 in Carlton County.

  • 56.49 in Cook County.

  • 116.81 in Itasca County.

  • 147.6 in Lake County.

  • 141.29 in St. Louis County.

  • 154.1 in the Duluth area.

  • 125.7 in Central/Southern St. Louis County.

  • 91.6 in Northern St. Louis County.

All these counties and areas saw a decrease from the numbers released last week, except Cook County and Northern St. Louis County, which saw slight increases.

The 14-day case rates are used as guidance for school districts when choosing the right learning model for their students.

According to Essentia Health’s COVID-19 Regional Projections dashboard, the county 14-day case rates per 10,000 residents as of Dec. 8 were:

  • 108.8 in Aitkin County.

  • 163.5 in Carlton County.

  • 53.8 in Cook County.

  • 124.1 in Itasca County.

  • 105.1 in Lake County.

  • 142.3 in St. Louis County.

This story was updated 7 p.m. Dec. 10 with quotes from Aubrie Hoover, senior public health educator with St. Louis County Public Health and Human Services. It was originally posted at 3:41 p.m. Dec. 10.