School board discusses options for opening school

Danae Milbrandt
Montevideo Schools Superintendent Dr. Luther Heller spoke about the options for opening school this year.

On Tuesday, August 4, the Montevideo School Board held a special meeting to discuss this fall’s schooling options regarding the current COVID crisis.

According to Super­intendent Dr. Luther Heller, the plan is to have a decision made by next week.

“I’m hoping that during the remainder of this week, I get the information I need; which should occur. The governor has indicated that everyone will have a contact with MDH, and that contact comes through the local public health agency. We’re hoping that for the remainder of this week, things start falling into place and we can have everything laid out.”

Tuesday’s special meeting was not designed as an action meeting; instead it was designed as an informational gathering and opportunity for the district to discuss the current data, which, like everything during the pandemic, could easily change.

There are three options for the fall school year that are being considered by the board. Students will either attend school in-person, or they will continue to utilize distance learning, or they will attend a hybrid of the previous options.

“For lack of a better term, the rubric that the governor showed in his press conference that indicated the number of positive COVID tests in the county, the five elements there would be if you have the lowest number of positive test results and your results over the two-week period were nine or under, then everyone attends school in-person,” said Heller.

He continued, saying that if the numbers are between 10 and 19, then elementary school would be done in-person and secondary schooling would be done in hybrid, according to the press conference. For 20 to 29 cases, both schools would participate in a hybrid model of learning. The fourth model would be hybrid learning for the elementary school, and secondary would be distance learning. The last option would be the situation where everyone would participate in distance learning.

“We’d have to have a spike right now in cases for everyone to participate in distance learning,” said Heller. “We’ve had steady growth in our local number of cases, but we’ve only got a little under a hundred positive cases so far since this started.”

Considering the number of positive cases in neighboring counties, Chippewa County has had a surprisingly low number of positive COVID cases among its population.

The other thing that comes into play, Heller stated, is the Montevideo School District is split into three counties.

“The bulk of it is in Chippewa County. Then we’ve also got a part of the district in Lac qui Parle County, and part of the district in Yellow Medicine County, so you also have to look at what’s happening in those counties,” Heller explained. “Lac qui Parle has an extremely low number of cases, so their numbers dictate that everyone would go to school in-person. If you look at Yellow Medicine, they had a spike not too long ago, so Yellow Medicine, right now, would have elementary students go to school in-person, but the secondary would be hybrid.”

In an email sent out by Heller to students and families last week, he indicated that they would be looking at starting the school year with all students attending school in-person. Then, over the weekend, he participated in a webinar on Saturday that informed him of the stipulations between the counties and whether students would be able to attend school in-person or whether they would be required, or recommended to continue distance learning, or utilize a hybrid model of the two.

At this point in time, the decision is up to the school board. Although, Heller explained, if the numbers indicated that there would need to be a hybrid model in place and the school board were to decide that the situation was not bad enough for distance learning, if the district did not follow MDH’s recommendations, then they would have to submit that decision to Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education as well as to the Minnesota Department of Health, who have the authority to deny that decision.

“If we, for example, have a positive case in school, then we’ll be in conversation with the department of health personnel, we’d be in touch with Countryside Public Health, and they would be helping us make a determination on what it is we need to do next; and we would need to respond fairly quickly” explained Heller.

He added that there is a possibility that the district will potentially see positive cases when the district opens back up for the school year.

“It may mean we would have to close down a particular classroom, or take some other action. They’ll come in, take a look, and do the tracing, and they will figure out who came in contact with the individual or individuals. What the board will be deciding in their resolution is how we’re going to be starting the year,” said Heller.

If the district does happen to see an increase in cases after the beginning of the school year, they will need to be able to transition their schooling into a hybrid, or distance model of learning, which is where the input from the department of health comes into play.

“If you look back a few years back to when we had issues surrounding the H1N1 flu, we never got hit hard here, but in Rocori, the department of health went in immediately with the administration, told them what they needed to do, closed school for the remainder of the day and they cleaned. Granted, that’s just a very strong strain of the flu, not a pandemic, but it’s the same thing that would happen,” Heller stated.

Recently, the district has been working on putting together a plan of action for the possibility of a spike in cases and another type of learning will have to be enacted, such as what a hybrid model would look like, what in-person schooling would look like, and what continued distance learning would look like. According to Heller, each of the building’s principals has been working with a team from their building and developing separate plans for those buildings in the event things would see an immediate change.

“We’ve got input from teachers and we’re meeting the guidelines,” said Heller. “I do believe we are going to be able to rapidly make that adjustment.”

As with everything that has been affected by the COVID pandemic, things are still uncertain for the school year. Due to the low number of positive cases within Chippewa County, it is likely the school year will start off in-person as planned, however, the decision will be made by the school board at tonight's (Aug. 10) board meeting.