School district moves to all distance learning

Mike Milbrandt
A few cars belonging to teachers are all that were in the Montevideo High School parking lot on Tuesday. The district went to all distance learning on Monday due to an increase in local COVID-19 cases.

As of Monday, the entire Montevideo School District is now in full distance learning mode. Outside of one week where the high school went into distance learning, the district had been using a hybrid model for most of the school year so far.

“The decision to have the entire district go to distance learning was made last Thursday,” said Montevideo Schools Superintendent Dr. Luther Heller. “We waited until Friday to make the announcement so we could get as much information as possible on the impact and how we will move forward.”

The decision to go to all distance learning was based on information and guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health and Countryside Public Health. Each Thursday, the school district meets virtually with MDH and Countryside Public Health to discuss the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the number of confirmed cases per 10,000 people for Chippewa County.

Dr. Heller said: “Our number on Friday was 79.3 cases per 10,000 people. At that point on Friday when we looked at the numbers for counties across the state, Chippewa County was the second highest county. The highest was Rock County, which is in the southern part of the state; they were in the 90s.”

Once a county’s confirmed cases reach a pre-determined level,  the recommendation to go to distance learning is made. “Originally, guidance said that once cases reach 50 cases per 10,000 people, a school district is supposed to go into distance learning for K-12,” said Dr. Heller. “In last week’s meeting the team talked a lot about the community wide impact and expressed their concerns about that impact.”

According to Dr. Heller, the rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in Chippewa County, and Montevideo in particular, are linked to community spread. He said: “The rise in cases is not caused by any particular event in Chippewa County. It is also not tied to any particular employer in the community. What we are seeing here is general community spread.”

Montevideo itself has become a hotspot for the virus in recent weeks. “The bulk of the spread is in Montevideo, which isn’t surprising because the majority of the population of Chippewa County is in Montevideo,” said Dr. Heller.

While it is difficult to identify specific factors as to why Montevideo’s COVID-19 numbers are on the rise, during last week’s meeting  with MDH and Countryside Public Health, the team mentioned that choosing not to wear masks or social distance in public may be playing a role in the spiking of Montevideo’s number of cases. “I think it’s a variety of things taken together,” said Dr. Heller.

The situation is reassessed on a weekly basis on Thursdays when the MDH, Countryside Public Health, and the school district hold their weekly meetings. Dr. Heller said: “We’ll look at the numbers again, but we are staying in distance learning for at least the next two weeks. We are not, however, anticipating any changes. We will of course be looking at the numbers over the next couple of weeks and make  decisions based off those numbers.”

The decision to go to all distance learning in the Montevideo School District will create issues for working parents, not so much for those with kids in high school, but more so for those with children in the elementary and middle schools. Especially when it comes to day care. “For the elementary and middle school, we have now moved from a hybrid model to the distance learning model,” said Dr. Heller. “For those students whose parents are considered essential employees, we will pick up those students on the days when they would have been in school and we will bring them to our day care program.

“We are mandated to provide day care during school hours for school age children, in Kindergarten through fifth grade, of essential employees.”

However, that leaves a number of families without options for day care. “For parents whose children arent’ currently receiving day care services,” said Dr. Heller, “they would have the hardship of having to find day care for their kids under distance learning or on days when they are not in school under the hybrid model.”

For the rest of this week and next week as well, the Montevideo School District will remain under distance learning. The situation is changing on a weekly basis, and COVID-19 case numbers will be watched closely by the district, MDH, and Countryside Public Health.

“We want our students in school, but we also want not only our students safe, but our community as well. So we will continue to follow the guidance which is given to us by the Department of Health and Countryside Public Health,” said Dr. Heller.