by ALEXANDRA RETTER
After Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) announced last week that because of the rising number of COVID-19 cases in Winona County, seventh through 12th grade students would begin the school year in distance learning and early childhood through sixth grade students would start with hybrid learning, WAPS Board members asked about continued monitoring of cases in the county at their meeting on Thursday, September 3.
Superintendent Annette Freiheit explained that the decision to move from hybrid learning for all students to distance learning for seventh through 12th grade students was made in consultation with Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) epidemiologists, a regional support team with members of MDH and the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) and county public health officials. Secondary students had been originally slated to begin school in the hybrid format. She added that she also met with the district’s COVID incident command team and leadership team. She monitors the number of cases that are reported for the county on a daily basis as well, she said.
“This is not a permanent thing, and as soon as those rates get down into a level where it’s going to be safe, I definitely will want our students back in there, and also our students back on the fields competing and getting together with their activities as soon as possible,” Freiheit shared. “But with that community-wide spread concern, I felt this was the best decision for our students and families. I know it’s not the greatest, because they don’t want their students in distance learning, or in a hybrid. They want their kids in person. I get that. I want that for our students.”
About 25 percent of district families had already elected for their children to take part in distance learning, Freiheit said in an interview. Additionally, the A and B groups in which students in the hybrid model will attend school in-person on certain weekdays were determined at the end of last week, she stated.
Aspects of distance learning from last spring, such as daily schedules and log-in expectations, have been tightened up with distance learning for this fall, Freiheit said in an interview.
Those in distance learning will be able to connect with one another through participating in their distance learning classrooms, Freiheit shared. Additional opportunities for interacting will be developed as the district hears from students about how they would like to socialize. Google Meets could be organized so students could have discussions, for instance, she said.
If cases were to occur in a school, MDH and MDE protocols would be followed to determine who would need to quarantine, Freiheit explained. Exposure to the coronavirus would be defined as being within six feet of someone for 15 minutes or more, per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance. Wearing masks, social distancing and hand washing will take place in schools to reduce the risk of exposure, she stated.
The children of tier one workers may receive free child care. Other children may receive child care for a cost. Children will receive care at the elementary school they attend, Freiheit said in an interview. Children will be in cohorts to limit exposure. Winona Senior High School will not be utilized for younger students, she stated, because if high school students were able to return to the building, elementary students would have to be moved.
Board member Karl Sonneman said he wished to avoid switching between in-person, hybrid and distance learning frequently and to be cautious about returning too quickly to a “normal” school year.
“Sometimes I hear the word ‘normal,’ which I fear, because I just don’t see anything normal about anything going on right now, or for the near future,” Sonneman noted. “But that we get, as we move up this, we keep in mind the goal of stability. We’ve given the superintendent considerable discretion to make these decisions, but I’d like to see us establish a policy of stability, that wherever we go to, we stay there if we can at all stay there for, my instinct says at least a month, but probably it’d be even better to do it longer, 45 days or longer … And I think we need to be forthright about it. We need to be honest. We need to talk how, not just how we get through a week, two weeks, but how we get from school term to semester to, practical terms, the end of the year.”
Board member Allison Quam asked Freiheit whether a discussion about how close the district is to needing to implement distance learning for all students had taken place when meeting with the regional support team and other officials.
The conversation with officials addressed how the district views its current situation, Freiheit said. Striking a balance between considering 14-day county case rates — which are updated about two weeks after the county case rates that are reported daily — and county case rates that are reported each day was part of the decision-making process with choosing distance learning for seventh through 12th grade students, Freiheit said, adding that she hoped to help reduce community spread by having fewer individuals in school buildings.
While MDH’s official 14-day case rates are about two weeks behind initial daily case reports, data thus far suggests Winona County’s 14-day average may put it into the range of distance learning for all students. At press time on Tuesday, Winona County’s unofficial 14-day case rate was nearly 55 per 10,000 residents.
Quam asked whether the regional support team planned to connect with the district frequently regarding when and whether to shift to distance learning for all students.
Continual monitoring of county case rates will occur, Freiheit said, and she will keep reaching out to the officials with whom she has been collaborating while planning for school in the fall.
If cases were to continue to rise and necessitate the elementary schools switching to distance learning, Freiheit said plans were developed for distance learning, hybrid learning and in-person learning over the summer, so teachers could implement distance learning after being given a bit of planning time, as is allowed under state guidance, and families could be notified of the change.
All community members are experiencing frustration and hardship currently, Quam shared. She explained that for her family, her kindergartener will have a very different first day of school than their sibling did, and her third grader wishes to be back at school with their friends. She asked community members to support one another and be empathetic.
“I urge people to practice grace and humility … I understand there are disappointments, but take time to reflect on how your words are impacting other people,” Quam said.
Freiheit said in an interview that the district is excited to have students back for the school year, and she would remind community members to wear a mask, social distance and wash their hands often.
How other schools are starting this fall
In Wisconsin, ninth through 12th grade students in the Cochrane-Fountain City School District began complete remote learning on September 4, according to the district’s website. They are projected to begin learning in-person on September 21.
In-person athletics and co-curricular activities are also not taking place for high school or junior high students currently.
Ninth through 12th grade students at Cotter Schools in Winona shifted to full distance learning on September 8. Fifth through eighth grade students are attending class in-person. They are in small cohort groups.
At Bluffview Montessori School in Winona, elementary students are starting the school year in a hybrid learning model, and Erdkinder, or seventh and eighth grade students, are beginning with distance learning.