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Middle and High School Students to Move to Distance Learning November 16, 2020

This communication contains important information about the need for middle and high school students to begin Distance Learning November 16, 2020. Families with elementary-aged children currently served in-person will receive a follow-up communication with specifics related to their upcoming transition to the Hybrid Model.  

Middle and High School Students to Begin Distance Learning
As we began our 2020-2021 school year in a Hybrid Learning Model in our middle and high schools, I was hopeful that I would not have to send this letter to change the existing learning model for our students. Unfortunately, due to numerous local data factors related to COVID-19, and in particular the inability to maintain acceptable staffing levels in our buildings, the time has come to move our middle school and high school students into the Distance Learning Model.

The district will and is well-prepared to begin implementing full Distance Learning for students in Grades 6-12 on Monday, November 16, 2020.

Note: The decision to move middle and high school students to the Distance Learning Model does not impact elementary-aged students. Students in Kindergarten through Grade 5, who are currently receiving in-person instruction, will still begin the Hybrid Model on November 16, 2020 as previously communicated.

District leaders have been and will continue to be in close consultation with local public health officials and the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education to track multiple data points regarding the latest COVID-19 outbreaks within ISD 728 and its surrounding communities. Meanwhile, we have also been navigating the uncertainty of changing education models - in this case from Hybrid to Distance Learning.

Executive Order and Requirements
Earlier this summer and in accordance with Governor Tim Walz’s Executive Order 20-82, school district leaders were required to develop plans for three learning models: in-person; distance; and a hybrid learning model. Individual school districts and school buildings within a district were instructed to be prepared to adjust the learning model at any time during the school year as the COVID-19 situation evolved. The Minnesota Safe Learning Plan was developed with individual school districts writing their plans to align with the requirements. 

Here is a link to the ISD 728 Parent Guidance for the 2020-2021 Learning Models, which was previously communicated and is currently available on the District website. 

ISD 728 Plan, Changes and Specifics
The ISD 728 Safe Learning Plan is a localized, multiple data-driven plan, which promotes a safe learning environment for all. 

Since our current plan was approved, ISD 728 has been taking multiple factors into consideration to make learning model implementation decisions. Examples of factors and what has changed since we last reported to the School Board on Monday, October 26, include: 

  • The number of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 has increased significantly, which disrupts the learning environment by removing these individuals from the buildings.
  • The number of students and staff in quarantine due to close contact with a person who has tested positive has increased significantly, which disrupts the learning environment by removing these individuals from the buildings and is making it difficult, even impossible at some buildings, to operate our schools. 
  • City and county case counts based on a percentage of the population continue to rise. The number of  COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people in every county is projected to be near or above 50 by the end of November. 
    • District leaders have publicly reported this trend data at each Board of Education meeting and through several District communication outlets in an effort to keep the community well-informed. 
  • Administrative concerns related to such things as supervision, instruction, transportation, meal service, student and staff absenteeism, etc. and the ability to address these services.
  • Vision Transportation has struggled with maintaining adequate staffing, and have been working with other vendors and companies to provide adequate staffing, which is becoming increasingly more difficult.
  • The ability to appropriately staff all the positions necessary to deliver the high-quality and equitable education our students deserve. We have exhausted our substitute candidate list and no longer have sufficient coverage in any of our learning or service areas. We are simply running out of people to help us keep our schools and services operating and to effectively address educational needs.

Specifics

  • Between October 26 and November 4, 2020, more than 1,515 students and 98 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 or began a 14 day quarantine. See District COVID-19 dashboard
  • Less than 60% of vacant teacher positions are able to be filled.
  • Less than 31% of support staff positions (i.e. educational assistants, clerks, bus drivers, food service employees, etc.) were able to be filled in the month of October.
  • Case rates have increased significantly across the entire district and now warrant a change to distance learning for secondary students according to the Minnesota Department of Health Guidelines.
  • The Minnesota Department of Health and public health officials have communicated that trends suggest that case rates will be above 50 (per 10,000) by the end of November, remain high, and potentially increase for the next 12 weeks due to the holidays and likely gatherings throughout the communities (i.e. Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, etc.).
  • As I write this letter, there are 63 middle and high school teachers absent today, most of which are COVID-19 related, and only 16 positions have a substitute. In addition, there are 75 support staff (i.e. assistants) absent today, most of which are COVID-19 related, and only 13 positions have a substitute. Unfortunately, this has now become the norm instead of the exception.

Transition and Timeline
We are committed to continuing to provide a high-quality education for all of our students when we transition to the Distance Learning Model. Therefore, there will be NO SCHOOL for ALL Kindergarten through Grade 12 Students, including our Distance Learning students, on November 11, 12, and 13, 2020. These days will provide time for important planning and preparation. We know this is inconvenient for families and appreciate your understanding and flexibility.

While there can be no specific timeline to return to a hybrid or in person model due to the uncertainty of the pandemic, we will continue to monitor the data and availability of staffing daily. For reasons mentioned throughout this email, the Distance Learning will remain in place for middle and high school students at least through the first semester, which ends January 28, 2021.  

We know there are many questions about what this learning model switch means for each of you. Please continue reading for answers to those questions. If you have additional questions after reviewing this information, please submit those through Let’s Chat here.

Athletics and Activities Able to Continue
District officials believe that it is important to continue our activities program due to the related mental and physical health benefits. As we transition into the distance learning model, students will continue to be provided the opportunity to participate in athletics and activities. The choice to participate will remain with the students and parents. 

The ISD 728 Health Services Team will continue to review any close contacts or positive cases within each program and will take the necessary measures to keep students safe. 

Throughout this school year, and in alignment with MDE/MDH, the Minnesota State High School League has provided sport specific COVID-19 safety guidance to member schools in order to assist them in operating athletics/activities in the safest possible manner. 

Hybrid Students in Grades 6-12 Moving to 100% Distance Learning 
In an effort to provide students a rigorous distance learning experience and to develop consistent routines; students are expected to attend and participate in each class period virtually following their regular class schedule Monday through Thursday.   

Teachers will provide instruction and offer additional support via Google Meet within each scheduled class period. In the event that students are absent, students should communicate with their teacher for an opportunity to make up the missed work.

On Fridays, instruction will follow the same process as the current Hybrid Model, where coursework will be posted in Schoology and teachers will have office hours for individual support. 

Refer to the Parent Portal to access your student’s schedule and class period times. Parents and/or students may contact teachers at any time.  Staff will attempt to respond to parent inquiries within 24 hours. 

Facility Use and Rentals
Building rental requests must be approved through the Community Education Office and must follow the Safe Learning Plan requirements. We will continue to require COVID-19 Preparedness Plans from eligible and approved renters. The school district will follow the cleaning and disinfection protocols outlined in the Safe Learning Plan.

Special Education Services
Students who receive Special Education services will continue to receive services as outlined in their Contingency Learning Plan (CLP). The CLP is part of your student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The CLP was written this fall with your input and outlines the services that will be provided during each of the different learning models. If you have questions, please contact your child’s case manager. 

Special Education evaluations will continue even during this time of distance learning. Parents will be notified by their student’s evaluation manager regarding how the evaluation testing will continue and be completed as outlined in the student’s Evaluation Plan. 

Technology
Each secondary student has been provided a district-issued Chromebook for use during this distance learning period. Students in Grades 6-12 will use Schoology on their district-issued device to access their assignments during distance learning. Internet hotspots are available through the school district for families who may not have access. Please work with your child’s principal to make arrangements.

Please refer to our Digital Learning Website for more information here.

Returning to In-Person or Hybrid Learning
There is nothing we want more than to have all of our children back on site and in school with their teachers, full time! I wish I could tell you exactly when this will happen; however, at this time the future of COVID-19 is unknown. Our hope is to return to the in-person or hybrid model as soon as possible, when there is adequate staffing, and when the number of COVID-19 cases notably declines. 

It will take all of us, working together, to decrease the spread of the virus so we can bring our children back to school. We must implement the strategies set forth from the Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control. We can improve our chances of getting our students back in school by: 

  • wearing face coverings at all times while being sure to cover our mouth and nose; 
  • practicing six-foot or more social distancing; 
  • regularly cleaning work and learning environments; 
  • washing our hands frequently and thoroughly; 
  • staying away from large-group events; 
  • staying home when sick and following other recommended guidelines.

I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of the School Board to thank each of you for the support and partnership, especially throughout this pandemic. Please take care of yourself and your family. Together, we will get through this as a community. 

Sincerely,

Dan Bittman
ISD 728 Superintendent