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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Ely schools develop ‘blueprint’ for reopening

Keith Vandervort
Posted 8/26/20

ELY – While many school districts around the state are having to change, walk back, or rethink their reopening plans based on rising COVID-19 case rates, pushback from both teachers and parents …

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Ely schools develop ‘blueprint’ for reopening


ELY – While many school districts around the state are having to change, walk back, or rethink their reopening plans based on rising COVID-19 case rates, pushback from both teachers and parents or even budget constraints, ISD 696 officials here released and approved a “Restart Blueprint” Monday night and are set to reopen for in-person learning on Tuesday, Sept. 8.
The 49-page document, sent to all parents and staff this week and available for review on the school website ( was developed with input of all district employee groups and administrators.
“This covers all of our procedures and protocol plans,” said Superintendent Erik Erie. A video summary of the plan will soon be ready for viewing.
As of now, ISD 696 will implement the “in-person learning for all students” scenario, as spelled out by the Minnesota Department of Health. School officials were ordered to create as much space as feasible between students and teachers and will strictly enforce six feet of distance between individuals.
Based on evolving data on local coronavirus cases, the Ely school district could, at any time, switch to a hybrid learning model with strict capacity limits in school facilities and transportation vehicles at a 50-percent capacity, or revert to a distance-learning only model with just remote learning, similar to what was implemented last spring.
Rather than adhere to county-based coronavirus data that could be skewed by the high number of infections in the Duluth metro area in St. Louis County, local officials are able to now refer to COVID-19 infection data by ZIP code that takes into account the relatively low infection rates in the North Country.
Erie said a regional support team will be meeting regularly to consider coronavirus cases in the northern portion of the county, regardless of what is indicated in the entire county.
“We will be able to look at our own ZIP codes to see what is happing in our own backyard,” Erie said.
Students and staff will be required to adhere to strict social distance guidelines, wear a protective face covering at all times, be screened for COVID-19 symptoms, practice good hygiene protocols, limit group gatherings, and plan for short-term school closures if there is a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case.
“We are one of the few school districts in the region that is doing temperature checks,” Erie said. “We are going to be coming up with the best way to achieve this and it may be different in the Washington building than in the Memorial building.”
Lunch periods in the buildings will look much different from normal for students.
“For elementary students, right now the plan is to eat in the classrooms, but that also brings up potential issues with spills and cleanup,” he said.
School principals highlighted additional plans for feeding students during the school day. ”Our intention is to have hot lunches (in the Washington building), but to start the year we will likely have bag lunches and work our way toward hot lunches once we work out the kinks and the timing of that,” said K-5 Principal Anne Oelke.
Megan Anderson, 6-12 principal, said in the Memorial building, all usable area will be available for lunch eating. “Some students may eat in the cafeteria, especially on those days when they can’t be outside,” she said. “We will use the gymnasium and bleacher areas as well.” The school will be closed for lunch periods and all students will be required to stay on campus.
James Pointer, one of two school board members not seeking reelection this fall, asked for all school sports seasons to be accounted for in the re-opening plan.
Athletic Director Tom Coombe explained, “We really don’t know, particularly for this winter, any sort of date or timelines. If you were to ask me today if hockey and basketball and skiing are going to start on Nov 15 or Dec. 1 or Jan. 1, I really couldn’t tell you. We will follow the directives of the high school league as we move forward.”
General cleaning protocols are still being developed.
“We continue to meet with individual employee groups on this,” Erie said. “Everybody has the same intentions, and that is to make sure our buildings are safe, employees are safe, and we will have strict protocols to address those issues.”
Facilities director Tim Leeson noted that he does not know at this time if any students will be touching any cleaning agents other than hand sanitizer or anti-bacterial soap. He continues to research surface cleaning options for the school buildings.

Enrollment and staffing
Enrollment projections for the 2020-2021 school year show 562 students in grades K-12 for ISDS 696, which would be about 10 students fewer than last year. Several families moved out of the district and as many as a dozen families have opted to home school their students this year.
According to Minnesota Department of Education orders, any family has the option to keep their children out of the in-person or hybrid-learning protocols in any school district. In the Washington building, 26 students will participate in distance learning to start the school year, and 21 students in the Memorial building will stay out of school buildings.
Erie said that if families decide to return their students to in-person learning, the transition will be made at the quarter breaks in the school year.
“We are looking at those natural breaks for continuity,” he said. Notification to principals will be required for the learning model transition.
Most of ISD 696 staff are returning to school for in-person learning this fall, but there are several changes.
• Anja Nienow resigned and the district is seeking a foreign language teacher.
• Kindergarten teacher Megan Devine will be taking a leave of absence for the 2020-2021 school year.
• Music teacher Mike Rouse will be working from home this year and will be focusing on elementary students.
• Sarah Mason will be teaching music to 6-12 students, and will not be teaching the normal band courses.
• Chelsea Blomberg will be teaching physical education in just the elementary building.
• Max Gantt will be teaching physical education classes for 6-12 students this year.
• Donna Carlson and Gail Lekatz will both be working on interventions as para-professionals from their homes this year, specifically on math and reading for 6-12 students.
School board members had mixed feelings about returning to the Memorial building board room, or some other location, with social distancing protocols in place. Board chair Ray Marsnik indicated that he will ask for a vote on the issue at the Sept. 14 board meeting.
School board members will also vote next month on utilizing a Teachers on Call program to provide substitute teachers for the district, and will consider a memorandum of understanding for coaching compensations in the event of changes or cancellations of sports seasons because of COVID-19.

Other business
In other action during a special meeting Monday, the board:
• Approved the school “Restart Blueprint” and the Memorial building master schedule for the 2020-2021 school year.
• Accepted the resignations of foreign language teacher Anja Nienow and longtime noon supervisor Patsy Gibney, effective immediately.
• Approved the leave of absence of elementary teacher Megan Devine for the 2020-2021 school year and hired Kara Kahle to fill the position.
• Hired Elyssa Erickson for the third-grade teaching position.
• Increased Matthew Koch to a .64 FTE position to reflect the addition of a psychology class.
• Hired Mary Schwinghamer for the temporary nurse position, and Jason Levar for the temporary custodian position.
• Hired Sara Burger for the bus driver position, and Ron Riikola and John Lahtonen for the substitute bus driver positions.


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