Board considers more in-person days for secondary students

Published 9:49 pm Tuesday, February 16, 2021

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Albert Lea school board members on Tuesday discussed options for bringing the district’s secondary students back to school for in-person learning for four days a week in the fourth quarter.

After hearing presentations from various staff members about the district’s past and current COVID-19 cases — as well as potential framework for a return to four-days-a-week in-person learning — a few of the board members said they supported bringing students back as soon as possible, while others expressed reluctance because of safety.

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No action was taken, and the issue is expected to be brought up for vote at the board’s March 1 meeting. If the action is approved, parents would still be able to choose distance learning for their child if they desired.

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Kathy Niebuhr, executive director of administrative services, showed a graph of COVID-19 positive cases in the district since the beginning of January. While numbers were high in the first two weeks in January, the cases have since dropped in the last 10 days.

She said there were 17 staff members and 53 students who tested positive for the virus in January, and so far in February, there have been seven total positive cases in the district — two of those cases remained active as of Tuesday.

Licensed school nurses Lisa Duggar and Kari Osheim spoke of the safety precautions in place to prevent the spread of the virus, as well as the work that goes into contact tracing by various staff members once a positive case arises.

Duggar said some of the concerns she has with shifting the secondary schools to a four-day in-person schedule are busing, the lunch period and maintaining the six-foot social distancing guidelines. The nurses are also concerned about spring break and Easter.

Superintendent Mike Funk said he would like to see if the trend of reduced cases continues in the next few weeks before he would be more comfortable with a recommendation and said the amount of work that staff is doing to contact trace and provide other measures under a hybrid model would only increase in a full-time environment if the numbers do not decrease.

Southwest Middle School teacher Cory Alfson, who is currently teaching in the distance learning academy, said secondary teachers got together last week and discussed the option to return four days a week in-person. He said overwhelmingly teachers want to be able to teach in a safe environment and one that is consistent for students.

He said from the feedback they are hearing from leadership in other districts, the work the Albert Lea district has done has been positive. He said he feels it has been successful and has allowed teachers to safely work and follow social distancing practices.

“What we’re doing here is working and it’s keeping us safe,” he said.

Niebuhr said 400 school staff are expected to have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Feb. 19, including food service staff, bus company employees, substitute teachers and coaches, and 35 are expected to have their second dose by the end of the week.

Funk said more than 90% of school staff are opting to receive the vaccine.

Parent survey

Mary Jo Dorman, executive director of teaching and learning, presented the results of a parent survey conducted about wishes for the fourth quarter.

She said of the parents who currently have students in the hybrid learning model, 78% said they would like their student to attend school in-person four days a week, while 22% said they would prefer their student stay in hybrid learning.

Of the parents whose students were currently in distance learning, 41% said they would send their students to school in-person four days a week, while 59% said they would keep their child in their current learning model.

She said 90% of the comments left at the end of the survey were of people who wanted their child to return to four-day in-person learning. Some of the comments talked about how their children were struggling in classes. Comments by parents who wanted their child to stay in distance learning said they didn’t feel safe and that COVID-19 is still unpredictable.

Potential framework

Southwest Middle School Principal Chris Dibble said he and high school Principal Mark Grossklaus came up with a few options for the board: First, to remain in a hybrid model with Fridays on a rotating basis at the middle and high school; second, to switch to full days for both the middle and high school for four days with a virtual Friday; or third, to switch to full days for the middle school for four days with a virtual Friday, while the high school would continue with hybrid learning.

The full days would run from 9:15 a.m. to 3:45 p.m. for the high school and from 9:15 a.m. to 3:55 p.m. for the middle school.

Full days could begin on March 22 or March 29.

The full-day schedule would allow classes to be lengthened from 28 to 48 minutes in length.

The principals said it would be difficult to social distance if students are brought back into the buildings for the four-day in-person schedule.

Grossklaus said right now there are about 150 students in lunch at a given time, where that would bump up to 300.

There was also discussion about the passing time between classes and the difficulty that would pose for social distancing.

School board member Angie Hoffman said she is concerned about delaying an increase for in-person learning and said she has had concerns expressed to her regarding both mental health and academics for students. She said she has also heard of other districts that have been doing in-person for five days a week the whole school year. Though some of these have been smaller districts, others have been similar size across the country and, particularly, in other states, such as Iowa.

“Not too far from us, people are open and they are being safe,” she said. “I think that should give us confidence we can do it, too.” 

School board member Dave Klatt said he, too, has heard from a number of parents who question why if sports can be open, then why can’t the children get back to full in-person learning again, too. He also said the pandemic has been hard on their mental health and academics and said he would like to see the students get back as much as they can and as soon as they can.

He noted, however, the importance of Alfson’s comment about having a safe and consistent environment.

School board member Jill Marin expressed a desire for longer school days for the secondary students if they remain in hybrid learning, which could raise a need for possible after school care needed for some families with younger children.

Board member Bruce Olson said though staff will be getting vaccinated, he is concerned about bringing the students back into crowded classrooms and lunchrooms.

“I think we’re asking for trouble to put them at risk for being infected,” he said.