by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A shift to distance learning for Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) secondary students may be considered if COVID-19 transmission increases in school buildings and the 14-day case rate moves closer to 40 cases per 10,000 people in Winona County, according to WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit.
According to state recommendations, districts should consider moving secondary students into the distance learning model when county case official average rates exceed 30 per 10,000 cases. Winona County’s official 14-day average has been over 30 since September 20. However, Freiheit explained, the district considers a host of factors when determining whether the learning model for students should be shifted.
To decide which learning model to implement, Freiheit speaks with Winona County public health and Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) officials each week.
She meets weekly with an incident command advisory team composed of a WAPS Board member, a Winona Education Association teachers’ union (WEA) representative and district administrators as well.
Participants in the conversations discuss the more official 14-day case rate from MDH, which represents data that has undergone vetting and is slightly delayed in being reported, the more unofficial 14-day case rate, which is calculated using the number of new cases per county published daily by MDH and represents data that has not yet undergone verification and the positivity rate, or how many people test positive for coronavirus out of the number of tests conducted. They also consider in which age range cases are occurring most and in what local zip code positive cases are arising at the greatest rate.
“We really haven’t made any changes from our additional process of review of the data and what’s being taken into consideration,” Freiheit shared. “When we make a decision, if we were to make any changes to our learning models, it would be based on that multiple sets of data that we have available, and then in consultation with the county health and regional support team. Because I think in particular for me, it’s, ‘Where are the cases occurring?’ If we’re seeing it among the children, that makes a big difference versus the adults in the community. And then also our zip code” of where cases are arising most.
With a 14-day case rate of over 30, state guidance recommends that districts consider having their secondary students in distance learning. Winona County has had a more official 14-day case rate of over 30 since September 20, according to MDH, with a case rate of 32.25 from September 20 to October 3 and a case rate of 34.42 from September 27 to October 10. Secondary students have been in hybrid learning since September 28.
With a 14-day case rate of over 50, state guidance recommends that all students take part in distance learning. As of October 10, 26 counties had a 14-day case rate from 30 to less than 50, and 19 had a 14-day case rate of 50 or more, according to MDH. Out of 537 districts and charter schools in the state, 26 percent are in hybrid learning, and 15 percent are in distance learning, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
WAPS has secondary students in a hybrid model, Freiheit said, because students are benefiting from in-person interactions with one another and their teachers, as well as completing hands-on work, such as science and industrial technology labs, as well as art, in-person. Positive case rates have not gone up within school buildings either while students have been in a hybrid model, she said.
“So I think in that respect our kids have done an absolute fantastic job all the way through … early childhood actually through seniors,” with following COVID-related protocols, Freiheit noted. “So that has been able to keep us in-person at a hybrid. We just need to keep our community case rate to drop to be able to get in person more.”
Shifting to distance learning for secondary students would be considered if the positive case rate in school buildings increased or the 14-day rate grew closer to 40, she noted. Consultation with health officials would take place as it is now if making a decision to change learning models, she said.
With positive case rates expected to rise this winter, Freiheit said decisions regarding which learning model to have in place would be made in the same fashion as they are currently. Conversations would still take place with health officials. The state epidemiologist is also tracking trends for Southeast Minnesota, and such information is being shared with districts, she said. “And then looking at those patterns, what do we see and anticipate for here? What other flus and viruses that we’re seeing floating around outside of just COVID, and how does that impact things? And so we’d continue with the same process and same information,” to make decisions about which learning model to implement, Freiheit said.
“I anticipate as we get more inside, our holidays coming up, you’re going to have families traveling, and we’ve got to be cautious about that,” she continued.
A change to distance learning for secondary students could happen within 24 hours if needed, Freiheit shared, as secondary students began the school year in distance learning, so teachers are prepared to provide instruction in that model. She said the district would just need to make sure students have the technological devices they need at home based on the day of the week the shift is made, as students are attending class in-person and bringing their technological devices to school on different weekdays in the hybrid model.
“If it gets too high or if we start seeing more community spread within our school buildings, yes, we would have to,” Freiheit said of whether she thinks the district may need to switch learning models this semester. “But at this point I’m not anticipating it, but again, with the daily monitoring of information, if I’m seeing something, I constantly reach out to our Department of Health, our county health people and our regional support team to get their information that they’re tracking and what their professional opinions would be.”
For elementary students, who have been in a hybrid model since school began, a bit more time may be needed for a change to distance learning, Freiheit said; however, the shift could be made within 24 hours and a way to get students their technological devices could be found if need be, based on what would be best for protecting the health of those who had been in the building, she added.
To communicate a shift in learning model, Freiheit said she would put together a notice with the district’s communications director. She would then notify School Board members. Next, she would let staff members know. Parents would then receive an alert through the district’s email system. The notice would next be posted on the district’s website and social media. In the notice, an explanation for the shift and the date it would go into effect would be included. If devices would need to be picked up, protocols for doing so would be noted as well.
“This is kind of the struggle. Kids have to be prepared for that, so lots of times they’re carrying stuff home, back and forth, depending on what day they’re in school for in-person,” Freiheit said of devices.
To date, one class has had to quarantine, Freiheit shared. The class was at the high school. Its quarantine period is now over. Other instances of quarantining have involved individual people, she said.
“We’ve been fine-tuning our contact tracing process and protocols that you have to follow, people you need to contact … I think as we’ve refined our processes, so has the Department of Health, our county health people. The more we learn, the more we adapt and change and put things in place,” Freiheit noted.
Discussions between administrators and the WEA regarding how to improve the hybrid model are now taking place. Finding ways to give teachers planning time, particularly with them needing to plan curriculum differently than in the past, is one key area of discussion, Freiheit said. Having supervisors for students so teachers have time to plan and providing opportunities to plan on Wednesdays, which are all distance learning days, may be options, for instance, she stated.
Other shifts to the model could come from professional development opportunities and technology that could assist with increasing the prevalence of synchronous learning, or learning that takes place while interacting with an instructor live, whether in-person or virtually, she said.