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How Did ISD 728 Get Here: The Decision to Move Elementary Students to Hybrid

ISD 728 announced Monday, Oct. 26, 2020 that it would be moving all elementary age students to a Hybrid Learning model, effective the start of the Second Trimester, or November 16, 2020.

Recognizing that this is a difficult transition for families, particularly our working families, the ISD Leadership Team wanted to be transparent with the factors behind the decision to switch to the Hybrid Model, which is seen as the most difficult model for teachers, staff and families during this pandemic.

By the Numbers
ISD 728 has been working with the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Education since the summer of 2020 to determine learning models for its more than 13,000 students.

In the days prior to the start of the school year, those state agencies listed the following criteria for learning models, using the number of cases per 10,000 residents by county over a two-week period:

  • 0-10 cases: All students may participate in in-person learning (In-Person model)
  • 10-20 cases: All elementary age students may be in-person/all secondary students (middle and high school) will utilize a hybrid system (Hybrid model) created by their District.
  • 20-30 cases: All students will utilize the District-developed Hybrid model.
  • 30-50 cases: All elementary age students will use the Hybrid model, while secondary students will move to full Distance Learning.
  • 50 cases per 10,000 residents and higher: All students will utilize Distance Learning.

In the meantime, families could utilize Distance Learning from the start of the year to each trimester break (or beyond) and then re-evaluate if they would like to join the District’s model.

So what happened?
ISD 728 was able to start this year with most of our counties in the 10-20 cases per 10,000 range, which meant the year began with elementary students going face-to-face, while our secondary students attended school in the Hybrid Model.

“Our belief is that every student learns better in a classroom, in person. So our hope was to start with that model, with everyone in person,” said Dr. Dan Bittman, Superintendent. “However, with cases still spreading around ISD 728 communities, that wasn’t our reality. This [Hybrid] model provides a situation where there is in-person learning, while utilizing some safety methods as well. And having our elementary kids in-person was a great way to begin the year.”

With the onset of autumn, cases are spreading around the District at a much higher rate. After starting the year in the 10 to 15 cases per 10,000 residents, ISD 728 communities are seeing a surge in cases and the state is seeing its highest rates of infection since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Over the last month, Hennepin County has risen to more than 23 cases per 10,000 and then to more than 25 cases. Sherburne County has soared from just over 18 cases per 10,000 to 25.10. And, Wright County has seen the biggest climb, from around 13 cases at its low point during September to more than 30 cases per 10,000 in the state’s last report, which is updated each Thursday.

In fact, a model put together by Dr. Julian Wolfson, a Biostatistics Professor at the University of Minnesota, shows the entire District averages more than 30 cases per 10,000 residents as of Oct. 22, 2020. According to Wolfson’s model, ISD 728 could be in a position where it would have to move secondary students to Distance Learning. However, that move is not happening at this time. 

Why Hybrid?
Well, as many ISD 728 families know, thanks to the hard work of our staff, students and parents/guardians, there has not been a tremendous amount of illness in our schools.

“Everyone is working very hard to manage the pandemic throughout our buildings,” Bittman said. “We are so appreciative of that. However, we still need to abide by the guidance provided by the state, so even if cases are low, there is a need to keep our kids safe. Districts make their decisions based on the data and guidance from our state partners.” 

And, unfortunately, the ISD 728 dashboard doesn’t tell the entire story. Though there are less than 50 student cases and 40 teacher/staff cases so far, each case has an impact, in or out of school.

“What isn’t seen via the dashboard is that thousands of our students and staff - more than 2,700 in fact -  have already had to be in some sort of quarantine,” Bittman said. “We have had a lot of families impacted because of a COVID case outside of our buildings – either from a community event, a sports team, etc. And when a staff member needs to quarantine and be out for 14 days or more, it’s exceedingly difficult to replace that person because our resources are stretched so thin at this time.”  “Bottom Line:  We do not have enough substitutes to fill the vacancies, which makes teaching, transporting, feeding, and supervising students extremely difficult.”

Looking Ahead
ISD 728 is planning on utilizing the hybrid model throughout the winter trimester, with the hopes of changing the model again in the spring, as conditions are forecasted to improve. That, of course, is speculative, but the District remains hopeful, said Community Engagement Director Cory Franson.

“For a while, we’ve been ready for this stretch of the year. With COVID cases rising and everyone moving indoors for the winter, this was expected to be a difficult stretch,” he said. “However, there is hope things will get better when we can get outside again in the spring, and we can reexamine prior to the start of the spring trimester. And, if the numbers would warrant - both with staff and with student availability - we could bring students back during Trimester 2 with proper protocols.” 

Again, Bittman said, data, safety, and the number of available staff will drive those decisions, particularly if numbers warranted a return.  He too, like the School Board, is hoping to bring students back into the buildings as soon as possible.

“It’s only been seven months since we first had to say good-bye to our students and close for the end of the 2019-2020 school year. That seems like so long ago,” he said. “We have learned much since then, and we are hopeful we can continue to have our students in our buildings and continue to provide them with a safe, constructive learning environment, with the cooperation of our families, our staff and our kids. We know this is difficult, but we also know we will make it through this together.”