ELY – Two weeks after the 2020-2021 school year started under an in-person learning model, a drastic uptick in regional coronavirus cases forced ISD 696 administrators to transition to a hybrid …
ELY – Two weeks after the 2020-2021 school year started under an in-person learning model, a drastic uptick in regional coronavirus cases forced ISD 696 administrators to transition to a hybrid learning protocol.
The Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council last Thursday reviewed updated Greater St. Louis County and local coronavirus data and agreed with the ISD 696 administration’s recommendation to move to the hybrid learning plan. The new protocols took effect on Monday, Sept. 21.
However, just a day after the advisory council met, district officials were notified by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) of lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 in a member of the Washington Elementary and a member of the Ely Memorial community, throwing the learning plan adjustment into potential chaos.
ISD 696 Superintendent Erik Erie confirmed Monday morning that there are two cases of COVID-19 in the Ely school community.
“We were notified by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) on Friday of a lab-confirmed case of COVID-19 in a member of the Washington Elementary and a member of the Ely Memorial Community,” he said.
He would not reveal the identity of the people who reported positive with COVID-19, and would not indicate if the cases involve students, staff, teachers or any other employee of the school district.
“I had a long talk with our administrators, and we are not releasing any more information,” Erie said.
The person(s) were last in attendance at the school on Friday, Sept. 11.
“We have worked with the MDH to identify those who had close contact with the case(s), and have communicated with them individually,” he said. “The risk of exposure for other individuals present in the building on that date is no greater than the risk of contracting the virus in the general community.”
Erie addressed the privacy versus public health dilemma the district is in.
“We understand that this may create unease in our community and might add to people guessing about the situation,” he said. “The sensitivity of the information played into our decision. We are trying to avoid the stigma surrounding the pandemic and at the same time trying to protect the privacy of all involved. We have taken action to clean and sanitize the facility and are working closely with MDH to monitor the situation.”
Erie added, “If you were not identified to have close contact with the positive case you should still monitor for symptoms of illness, but do not need to stay home unless symptoms develop. If symptoms develop, stay home and consult with your physician to determine if medical evaluation is needed.”
Hybrid learning plan
Despite the reporting of COVID-19 cases in the school, Erie said the transition to the hybrid learning model this week continued. Beginning Tuesday, students in the Memorial building, grades 6-12, began following the hybrid plan which involves a schedule of some days in school and other days at home. Students in the Washington building, grades K-5, continue with all in-person learning.
The advisory council, consisting of district administration, teachers, staff, school board members, parents, students, local medical staff and community members, meets weekly to advise the school district on the issues surrounding COVID-19 as it relates to the local school system and community.
Erie explained that updated coronavirus case data was reviewed along with the protocols spelled out in the school district’s “Restart Blueprint,” and any changes or improvements were considered. District administration members Erie and principals Megan Anderson and Anne Oelke are authorized by the ISD 696 School Board to make any learning plan adjustments as agreed upon by the advisory council.
The St. Louis County public health COVID-19 dashboard indicated a steady yet alarming increase in the number of cases per 10,000 people in recent weeks from 4.87 to 10.87 to 13.74 last Thursday for Greater St. Louis County.
According to the ISD 696 learning model protocols, COVID-19 case rate increase drives what learning models will be in place. A case count ratio from zero to nine (per 10,000 people) puts Ely schools in complete in-person learning model. A case count ratio of 10 to 19 triggers a move to hybrid learning for secondary students and in-person for elementary students. A case count ratio of 20 to 29 triggers a transition to hybrid learning for all students. Larger case count ratios trigger a move to distance-learning models.
“One new thing added this week, not something we should necessarily base our decisions on, but hard to ignore, is the 31.47(cases per 10,000) in our ZIP code,” Erie said. “We are certainly not the highest but we are higher than other neighboring communities. We certainly do look at that and other local data, too.”
The St. Louis County Public Health regional support team recommended that ISD 696 remain in an in-person learning mode until there are threeweeks of data set trends to consider, Erie said.
“That is a change from last week when they said we should look at two weeks of trends. That is what they are telling school districts to do,” he said. He noted that that recommendation came from the state Department of Health to St. Louis County health officials.
Erie noted that, as of last Thursday, most neighboring school districts, looking at the same data (13.74 cases per 10,000), are staying with in-person learning.
Erie asked the advisory council to consider the story in the Sept. 18 issue of the Timberjay that a local senior living facility had reported four deaths on its COVID-19 webpage, although the report did not specifically say the deaths were from COVID-19.
“We have people in our community that certainly work (at Carefree Living), and some of the are parents of our students,” he said.
According to Ely 6-12 principal Megan Anderson, Essentia Clinic officials had recommended moving to the first-tier hybrid learning model.
Paula Schultz, of Essentia Clinic, praised the continuing communication between the school district and the local medical community.
“I think the administration as a whole is supportive of going to a hybrid model,” Erie said. He noted that 1,942 COVID-19-related deaths have been reported in Minnesota since March.
“Out of that, there have been 1,408 deaths of those in long-term care,” he said. “We are very fortunate that so far we have not had a student or a faculty member in Minnesota die from COVID-19.”
Erie stressed that county public health officials recommended that Ely school officials wait another week to consider more data trends before transitioning the learning model. “It is totally up to our district and this is a district-level decision,” he said. “It is our district that is responsible for keeping our students and employees safe as best we can.”
Following a discussion with advisory council members, the administration team recommended that the hybrid learning plan model be initiated as soon as possible.
Ely students in grades 6-12 were not in school on Monday to allow teachers and staff additional planning time to prepare and transition to the modified learning protocols.
Students in grades 6-12 are divided into an A Group and a B Group. Those students in the A Group attend school in person on Mondays and Tuesdays, and stay home on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Those students in the B Group will stay home on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and report for in-person learning on Thursdays and Fridays.
As mentioned above, all elementary students, grades K-5 will continue with in-person learning five days a week, and staff will continue to enforce social distancing of six feet. “They are working hard with our young learners to create safe, responsible habits in regards to stopping the spread of COVID-19,” Erie said in a letter to parents.
“Parents, please help us to continue to create a safe learning environment for our students, staff, and community,” Erie continued. “In order to have students back for in-person learning, we need all community members to do their part and be sure that your students are being responsible including wearing face masks in public, avoiding large social gatherings, and practicing safe social distancing.”