REGIONAL- St. Louis County ISD 2142 schools will resume full in-person classes in September, but one-third of parents responding to a district survey either won’t be sending their children back …
REGIONAL- St. Louis County ISD 2142 schools will resume full in-person classes in September, but one-third of parents responding to a district survey either won’t be sending their children back to class or are uncertain about doing so.
The uncertainty was reflected at Tuesday’s special school board meeting, where board members Chris Koivisto and Christine Taylor voted against resuming full in-person classes over concerns about the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the district’s ability in that scenario to ensure adequate social distancing and other health measures.
Superintendent Reggie Engebritsen reported on the results of the survey, noting that many of the 782 surveys received were duplicates submitted by both parents in a household. After eliminating those duplicates, 696 surveys were tallied.
Sixty-eight percent of parents districtwide said they would be sending their children back to school, and 15 percent were undecided.
But 118 parents, 17 percent, said they would not be sending 182 children back to school when it resumes. That included 128 children in Kindergarten through sixth grade. Under state guidelines, the district will have to provide distance education to those students, unless parents choose an alternative option such as homeschooling or sending their children to private schools.
A separate survey of teachers drew 139 responses. All but seven said they intend to return.
“Even teachers who have underlying conditions are willing to teach from home,” Engebritsen said.
Engebritsen recommended the in-person option over two other models, full distance learning and a hybrid combining in-class and distance learning, after learning the 14-day average for new case numbers per 10,000 people in St. Louis County fell well within the state-prescribed range for resuming full in-person classes.
“Right now, our rate is at 5.5, which means if we’re between zero and nine that would be in-person learning for all students,” she said. “If the rate was ten to 19, it would be in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary.”
Engebritson reviewed basic elements of the district’s plan for ensuring the health and safety of students and staff, including daily health screenings, enhanced sanitation and personal hygiene procedures, meal service, transportation, and more.
“We are putting things in place,” she said. “We’re still planning.
Each school will have its own planning committee, Engebritsen said, so that district practices could be fine-tuned for each facility.
“The entire district would be on the plan, but it would look different at each school,” she said.
If a COVID-19 case is identified at a school, the district will work with a regional service cooperative of education and health officials to determine the steps necessary to respond, Engebritsen said. Contact tracing in isolated cases would be the district’s responsibility, but Engebritsen said the health department would assist with the process if situations involved larger numbers of students and staff. When testing is deemed necessary, the district would refer parents to community-based testing options.
All board members took turns asking questions and commenting, with varying levels of concern expressed.
Board member Troy Swanson had reservations about social distancing but noted that while the district will start out with in-person instruction, they had the option to make alterations as needs dictate.
“Obviously I worry about the separation problems,” he said. “Any school is packed. It makes me worry. But if we stay by these standards, I mean we can make a change at any time.”
Swanson also asked about the district’s liability in the event someone contracts COVID-19. Engebritsen said that she hadn’t yet received any direction about that from the state or the state school board association.
Koivisto also was concerned about social distancing, and suggested planning should go beyond the basic guidelines.
“I’m concerned with those minimum requirements,” he said. “If we’re going to go to in-person, perhaps we want to do more than the minimum requirements on the governor’s list.”
Koivisto said he supported using a hybrid model of in-person instruction for elementary students and a combination of limited in-class instruction and distance learning for secondary students, noting that the average case number has increased significantly in recent weeks.
“I actually lean towards moving to in-person elementary and hybrid secondary just based on that we are increasing so much in three weeks, and we’re on a trend now,” he said. “I could see going back the other direction to completely in-person if we see the trend goes back down.”
Taylor was even more emphatic in her objections to in-person classes.
“I am absolutely opposed to doing a ‘let’s go back to normal,’ which in my opinion is putting all human beings back in a single concentrated location,” she said. “Who knows about masks being on faces, off faces, on noses, off noses?
“If you look at the chart of cases per 10,000, that when the state reopened, which was what, mid-June, and a little after that, we had been at one, and now we’re at 5.5. So, in three weeks it’s gone up fourfold. And as we know how this works, it spreads rapidly.”
Taylor said that in looking at classroom spaces and transitions where students were moving throughout the school, she believed it wasn’t possible to protect the health and safety of students by ensuring appropriate social distancing.
“It’s completely confusing to me,” she said, “and until proven otherwise with some kind of chart, I don’t think anybody can argue that we can manage that. Unless you can show me what that looks like, I don’t understand how any of us can say that will happen.”
Taylor also cited concerns about having fall sports. Earlier on Tuesday, the Minnesota State High School League moved shortened football and volleyball seasons to the spring while allowing for practices in the fall for both and also for spring sports. Taylor noted that even with extensive precautions professional baseball and basketball leagues are having COVID-19 outbreaks.
“I’m definitely opposed to any kind, especially football,” she said. “I don’t think we should be supportive of having sports.”
When board chairman Dan Manick asked for a motion about the in-person option, Taylor questioned why the board had to act without having more thorough discussions about the plan.
“We have spent more time debating busing software as a board than we have this issue,” she said. “These are people’s lives we’re talking about. We’re not talking about software to make bus routes. I think we’ve spent maybe three different board meetings on that. I don’t understand why we would do any vote at this time when it’s not required and everybody keeps saying we can change at any time.”
Manick responded that it was essential to make a decision so that parents and staff could plan.
“There are very, very anxious parents out there – I hear from them all the time,” he said. “Our survey kind of shows that the majority of parents are interested in sending their kids back to school. Just as we owe it to the staff, even more so we owe it to the parents and students. We owe it to our parents to make a decision tonight, and our staff, too.”
Following the vote approving the in-person instruction plan, Engebritsen noted that the next regular board meeting would be Aug. 25. Taylor expressed disbelief that the board wouldn’t have another working session before then to receive updates on the planning process.
“How do we not need a special working session to discuss whatever you guys are going to be talking about?” she said.
After Manick expressed confidence in the planning process, Taylor continued.
“How can you make a decision if you don’t know the process they’re going through,” she said. “The meeting started an hour ago and Reggie did a summation, but that’s a 30-trillion-mile-above-the-earth overview of what she knows, what she’s considered, who she’s talked to, what the plans are. We have special meetings for all sorts of, in contrast, trivial issues. I would personally ask if we could get a special meeting to discuss and get an update on how the planning is going and see where our numbers are, and maybe to hopefully put Chris and I more at ease.”
Engebritsen readily agreed.
“We can certainly find a date that works to have a special meeting,” she said. “We’ll have a meeting. I want you to know what we’re doing.”