The Cloquet School Board voted Monday, March 8, to bring high school students and staff back to an in-person learning model starting Tuesday, March 16, with the option for students to remain distance learning if they choose to do so.

The high school has been in a hybrid model since late January, which followed several weeks of distance learning after COVID-19 numbers spiked in November. The elementary and middle schools have also returned to in-person learning since that time.

With positive cases of COVID-19 decreasing and staff vaccination increasing, school officials initially discussed bringing back high school students at a board meeting last month.

On Feb. 22, Superintendent Michael Cary and high school principal Steve Battaglia proposed restarting full-time in-person learning for the high school in April — the start of fourth quarter but were met with concerns from board members.

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“I think we’re doing a disservice if we’re … slowly approaching it,” board clerk Nate Sandman said at the February meeting. “These kids are just itching to get back.”

Students who have struggled with curriculum have been able to go to the school four days a week in the hybrid model, but Sandman said all students are struggling with issues such as mental health and need more in-person interactions.

Cary and Battaglia agreed to look into a sooner start date, leading to the new proposal of March 16.

Originally, school district administrators were going to make the decision on when to bring students back, but decided to ask the school board to weigh in. The change came after officials received a letter from the Education Minnesota Executive Board expressing apprehension among staff members about the earlier start date.

The letter laid out concerns about the possible disruption of sports due to student quarantines and worries of new strains of the coronavirus. It also addressed high school students being more active in the community and more exposed to the COVID-19 virus, as well as the incomplete vaccinations of staff members.

“This request represents the concerns of roughly 50% of the teaching staff at the high school,” the letter read.

The executive board suggested sticking to the start date the administration proposed in April.

Cary acknowledged the points made in the letter were accurate and said there is potential for student quarantines, but emphasized that students’ abilities to learn are being negatively impacted by hybrid and distance learning.

“When we look at our bottom line, the reason we exist as an organization is for the education of our children,” he said.

According to Cary, by the end of this week all district staff members will have had the option to receive a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. He pointed out that county COVID-19 case numbers are low and all factors point to students returning to school safely within state regulations.

“While I’ll never say that there isn’t a risk … the risk is extremely low,” he said.

The state no longer requires district officials to consult with the Minnesota Department of Health prior to reopening, but Cary said he spoke with Carlton County Public Health officials about transportation options last week.

Sandman and Scarbrough both voiced support for the March 16 start date, citing the adequacy of current safety protocols at the school and rising vaccine numbers. Other board members called attention to the letter and said they supported waiting to bring students back.

“It’s not that much more time,” board member David Battaglia said, explaining the approximately two week difference in start dates.

He also worried student athletes may be at risk of missing playoffs by coming back to school too soon.

Sandman contradicted this point, arguing that the process shouldn't be delayed for all students because of concerns regarding student athletes.

Scarbrough pointed out that student athletes have the option to remain in full distance learning until the start of the fourth quarter.

In the end, the board voted to bring high school students back in person on March 16 by a 4-2 margin, with David Battaglia and board member Gary Huard opposed.