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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely schools continue with in-person learning despite COVID-19 rate increases

Keith Vandervort
Posted 9/16/20

ELY – Despite rising cases of COVID-19 in this community, the Ely School District late last week decided to continue in-person learning for all students, at least for now, just a couple of days …

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Ely schools continue with in-person learning despite COVID-19 rate increases

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ELY – Despite rising cases of COVID-19 in this community, the Ely School District late last week decided to continue in-person learning for all students, at least for now, just a couple of days after the new school year started.
According to ISD 696 Superintendent Erik Erie, district employees and parents were notified late last Thursday that the bi-weekly coronavirus case rates in Greater St. Louis County ticked up substantially.
“Ely Public Schools utilize Greater St. Louis County Public Health data when looking at the ‘bi-weekly case rates for schools’ and (Thursday, Sept. 10) that number stood at 10.87.  Last week that data point was 4.87,” he wrote in a letter obtained by the Timberjay.
“The 4.87 number is what our Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council (ESLPAC) looked at (Wednesday) at our weekly meeting,” he continued. “We are now moving those ESLPAC meetings to Thursdays to coincide with the weekly updates from St. Louis County Public Health.”
ESLPAC administration and employee members met again last Thursday to review the data and devise action plans which included sending out the letter and additional communication to employees for further explanation.
“The message from St. Louis County Public Health acknowledged that the 10.87 number might spur school districts like Ely to consider moving to a hybrid learning model as it meets the MDE learning model parameters to do so,” Erie said.
“St. Louis County Public Health officials recommended that schools not make the shift from in-person learning to hybrid learning at this time, since the increase to 10.87 is being attributed to cases in long-term care facilities,” he said.  “Discussions with Essentia Health in Ely confirmed that some local cases were related to a long-term care facility.”
According to guidance from St. Louis County Public Health officials, “Outbreaks in the community occurring in a setting that does not have a strong connection to the school (e.g., long-term care facility, local religious institution or correctional facility) are unlikely to result in a recommendation to shift to a hybrid learning model. Our data analyst, Robert Prose, believes it would be a useful approach to use a 28-day incubation period for making decisions to change learning plans unless of course there was a local outbreak in the school or affiliated with a school event in which case the district would be advised to work with Local Public Health and MDH/MDE to change learning plans.” 
Erie told the Timberjay, “In other words, they don’t want us ping-ponging from one learning model to another and possibly returning back to the original model perhaps in the next week.”
School superintendents along the Iron Range met with St. Louis County Public Health officials late last week to discuss the health data and related issues.
“The St. Louis County Public Health officials affirmed their recommendation that schools should not move to a more restrictive hybrid learning model just based on the 10.87 bi-weekly case rate number,” Erie said. 
“Superintendents, including neighboring ISD 2142, planned to follow the St. Louis County Public Health recommendations and stay with in-person learning,” he added. “We will continue to consider guidance from St. Louis County Public Health, Minnesota Department of Education, Minnesota Department of Health, Ely-Bloomenson Community Hospital, and Essentia Health as we evaluate what learning model Ely Public Schools will operate in.  Input from our students, families, and employees is also strongly considered and well represented on our Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council.”
School board action is not required to change learning model plans. Erie was set to update the ISD 696 school board Monday night on the evolving situation.
School Board updated Monday
Mark Spanholz, parent of third- and sixth-grade Ely students, voiced his concerns to school board members Monday night during the open forum portion of their regular business meeting with the way the district is determining the learning plan model.
“I would love nothing more than for my children to attend school full time and in person throughout the year,” he said. “We can all agree that this is clearly the best learning model from an educational and social standpoint.”
He stressed the importance of decisions being made using data and science and not dictated by politics and emotion.
“The data being used to determine should be timely and relevant,” he said, and noted that the COVID-19 case numbers being used are at least two weeks old and the information is not relevant to the Ely community, but rather the greater St. Louis County area.
He called for the ISD 696 learning plan advisory council to push county officials for more relevant and timely data. Spanholz said he reached out to the Minnesota governor and other authorities with the same request.
“My primary concern is regarding transparency around all decisions being made,” he said. “The district’s restart blueprint indicates fairly specific standards or thresholds regarding the number of cases per 10,000 people, but the email sent to parents last week indicated that those standards were not necessarily followed.”
Spanholz requested to have a seat on the ISD 696 Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council. “I would like the opportunity to ask questions at those meetings, and review the date in making learning model decisions.”
Later in the meeting, Erie addressed the Safe Learning Plan issue, and announced that plans are being made to post the minutes from the advisory council’s weekly meetings on the school’s website.
“We have representation on the council including a student, parent, administration, teacher, staff, and a medical official from Essentia clinic,” he said. “We want people to beable to see how these decisions are being made. We are also considering having the meetings open to the public. We want to maintain that this as an advisory council and not a (pubic) forum.”
The advisory council meetings have been moved from Wednesdays to Thursdays to better coincide with the release of the latest public health data from St. Louis County.
School board chair Ray Marsnik weighed in on the issue.
“There is a lot of confusion based on what data we are using,” he said. “And in looking at our ‘blueprint’ it definitely does state that Ely public schools utilize the Greater St. Louis County data.”
He also noted that old data is being used in making the learning plan decisions.
“That last number (10.87 cases per 10,000 people) was from Aug. 16-Aug. 29. The next data we review this Thursday will be from Aug. 30 to Sept. 12. There is much confusion, but I’m not blaming anybody.”
Marsnik also expressed concern with the fact that the majority of local COVID-19 cases are from long-term care facilities and those saying that there is little connection with the school.
“I have to disagree with that,” he said. “At these facilities the employees working there may have children in our school, or their spouses may be working there. I don’t know, but I think we have to take these (factors) seriously. It is still in Ely. We have to do what is best for Ely. I also think that communication and transparency is a must.”

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