School District 166

ISD166 adopts distance learning model for 2020-2021

School District 166 held another marathon meeting on Thursday, August 13, this time via Zoom. While about 50 people filled the bleachers at Lyle Anderson Field for the meeting a week ago to consider what fall 2020 would look like for school, this online meeting had 100 participants. There was enough interest that one parent recorded the meeting on her cell phone and streamed it on her cell phone for friends who were not able to join because the meeting had been capped at that number. Listeners sat through 3 ½ hours of discussion, an in-depth teacher presentation, and three failed motions before the motion was made to start the school year in distance learning mode.

Unlike the last meeting, there was little public comment at this online meeting. Two parents spoke or had a statement read in support of returning to in-person learning. Maria Burnett, education director for the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior urged the school district to attend to special education students properly, no matter what learning model was chosen.

After public comments, the board heard information about the number of cases of COVID-19 in Cook County from Public Health Supervisor Grace Grinager and Dr. Kurt Farchmin of Sawtooth Mountain Clinic.

Public Health Supervisor Grinager introduced Jodi Tervo Roberts, who will be the county’s liaison with the school district, conducting contact tracing for any COVID-19 cases identified in students or teachers.

There was a lot of information on the criteria set forth by the State of Minnesota regarding the return to school. Grinager said the number of active cases of the coronavirus is not the only factor in determining whether or not in-person learning, or even hybrid learning (part in-person, part distance learning), should take place. Other factors are the turnaround time for testing (must be less than four days); whether or not contact tracing can begin within 24 hours; and hospital capacity—in Cook County and in Duluth intensive care units. Grinager went through that data, which, even with another case diagnosed on the day of the meeting, still met state guidelines for in-person learning.

There was much discussion of what would happen if a child or teacher had symptoms of coronavirus and the testing process. Grinager said positive COVID-19 cases would be looked at on a “situational basis,” meaning each situation could be different, depending on the proximity of the patient to others in the classroom. However, the need to quarantine while waiting test results and/or during an active coronavirus case, could be very disruptive, said Dr. Farchmin.

Grinager noted that the team working on the return to school models anticipated a “cohort” concept for middle and high school in the in-person or hybrid models. Instead of students moving through the halls from class to class, groups would be clustered in cohorts, to limit possible spread. No matter what model is chosen, Grinager said, school would look vastly different in 2020.
The school board talked about the need for improved technology for the hybrid and distance learning models and there appeared to be consensus that the school needed to prepare for distance learning for all students no matter what was decided at this meeting as that could ultimately become the reality if COVID-19 cases increase.

Funding that technology, which means the school would provide devices for students and would assist with acquiring internet services, was discussed. Board Member Rena Rogers noted that the school had received $80,000 in federal CARES Act funding that could go toward that, but also said it is nowhere near enough.

The board asked if there were opportunities for additional funding from other sources. Superintendent Dr. Bill Crandall said there were, and that is something that school financial director Lori Backlund would pursue. Rogers said this is an area where the school cannot cut costs. She said distance learning has to work.

Dr. Crandall said there is another problem however. The items the school would need to purchase—Chromebooks, document and web cameras, etc. are sought after by schools all across the country. The equipment may not be available at the start of school.
Principal Megan Myers reviewed the three scenarios with the board and teachers Stephanie Lindstrom and Emma Spoon gave a presentation dubbed “Distance Learning 2.0.” Their presentation focused on three “Cs”—Community, Communication and Consistency and detailed how teachers would ensure that distance learning students would have consistency from day-to-day and how teachers would communicate with families. For example, the teachers said, there would be a “home room” session with teacher interaction online every day at the same time, as well as live teaching sessions which would be recorded so parents and children could watch later if needed.

Principal Myers said with whatever plan is chosen, the key is consistent and face-to-face time with students.

At about 8:30 p.m., Board Chair Dan Shirley suggested that the best course of action, for student, teacher and community safety and for educational consistency, was the full distance learning scenario. He made a motion to start the school year with distance learning to be revisited after the first quarter. Board Member Deb White seconded his motion, adding that this has to be an improved distance learning model with opportunity for students to have online face-to-face time with their teachers.

The motion failed to pass and Board Member Sissy Lunde moved to allow students to return to school in the in-person learning scenario. As she did at the last meeting, Lunde said she was advocating for her constituents, who she believes want students to return to school in-person. She added that the data at this time allow the school to start in-person.

Board member Carrie Jansen asked Lunde if she understood that meant “no social distancing,” which drew a response from Superintendent Crandall, who said all of the plans have some form of social distancing. The in-person model does outline how students will be spaced out, masks worn, etc., said Crandall.

Board Member Deb White spoke of her concern of an outbreak with all the students in school, especially in light of the news that two teen-aged residents had been diagnosed with COVID-19 in recent days. She said she didn’t want a school outbreak to lead to a community outbreak. She asked Lunde why returning to school was so important that community health could be overlooked.
Lunde said she agreed an outbreak was a concern, however, she said it is also vital for students to have interaction with teachers, in-person, not just online. She said this is especially true for special education students and those with individual education plans (IEPs). She reiterated that the school has heard from parents that this is what they want.

Lunde’s motion also failed and Board Member Rena Rogers made a motion to adopt the hybrid plan. She said the hybrid plan would provide consistency, as it could fairly easily be adapted to distance learning should that become necessary. That motion too failed, with just Rogers and Jansen voting aye.

At the impasse, Board Chair Dan Shirley gave a heartfelt plea for his colleagues to reconsider distance learning, speaking to the danger of congregate settings such as schools. He repeated what he said at the last meeting that he feels distance learning is the school’s best means of avoiding a high-contagion environment. He also said it is the only model that would give true consistency for students and families.

Board Member White, who had voted no to all three of the motions, then made a motion to start the school year with the distance learning model. The motion was seconded by Shirley and passed, with Board Member Lunde casting the lone no vote for distance learning.

The decision finally made on how to start school at ISD 166—with distance learning—the meeting ended at 9:01 p.m.

The different learning model scenarios and other information reviewed by the school board can be seen on the School District 166 website here.