As Brainerd moves into distance learning for secondary students Thursday, Nov. 5, primarily due to a staffing shortage, Little Falls Community Schools hopes to transition out of distance learning and back to hybrid and in-person models Tuesday, Nov. 10.

Brainerd Superintendent Laine Larson announced the change Thursday, Oct. 29, with a letter to families. She followed that up with a more detailed letter Friday, explaining logistics of the distance learning plan for fifth through 12th grade students.

The primary reason for the shift, Larson said, is inadequate staffing numbers due to both illness and the need to quarantine after COVID-19 exposure. The district regularly monitors several data points, including the number of students and staff testing positive, the number of students and staff in quarantine, Crow Wing County case counts, administrative concerns, transportation needs and staffing needs.

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Since last reporting data from those categories to the school board Monday, administrators have noticed several changes, including:

  • The number of students and staff in quarantine is trending upward.

  • The number of students and staff testing positive is trending upward.

  • The rising number of staff who are in quarantine, whether from testing positive or from close contact, is making it difficult — even impossible at some buildings — to operate schools. All substitutes have been exhausted, and there is no longer anyone else available to cover absences.

  • The case count in Crow Wing County continues to rise. Public health officials project the 14-day per 10,000 case rate announced Nov. 5 for Oct. 11-24 to be about 52.63, with the following week to rise up to the 60s.

  • The transportation department has struggled with being short up to 14 drivers and three transportation paraprofessionals while having to consolidate 10.5 routes since the start of the school year. The district is currently unable to run two routes, and one other route is running an hour late.

  • Each of the 13 district buildings has been impacted by positive case(s) of COVID-19.

Middle and high school students will not have classes Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 3-4, to allow for distance learning preparations.

The distance learning school day schedule will align to the hybrid learning bell schedule for students at Brainerd High School and Forestview Middle School. Fifth graders are included in distance learning, even though they were completely in-person before the change and not in hybrid. This decision is due to the staffing shortage and a recommendation from state officials to set the same learning model for all students in one building.

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Students are expected to engage in their classes by logging on each hour according to their schedule and follow directions from their teacher. High school teachers will give a live message at the beginning of each class period via Google Meets.

If students are unable to log on or engage in class, they should notify their teacher, who may direct students to the district’s help desk, depending on the situation. If a student is unable to attend school due to illness or other reasons, parents or guardians should contact the school’s attendance office to provide an excuse for the absence.

Students who receive special education services will continue to do so as outlined in their contingency learning plan. Students who have been identified to continue attending school in person during the distance learning model have been notified by their case manager. Special education evaluations will continue during distance learning. Case managers will notify parents with specific information.

Forestview student Tristan Wilson looks through paper samples while Brett Johnson 8th grade art instructor uses the paper cutter during class Friday, Oct. 30 at the middle school. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Forestview student Tristan Wilson looks through paper samples while Brett Johnson 8th grade art instructor uses the paper cutter during class Friday, Oct. 30 at the middle school. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

No classes will take place Tuesday and Wednesday for fifth through 12th grade students at Brainerd Learning Center, Lincoln Education Center or those in the STARS and Paul Bunyan Transition Plus programs. Schedules for these students will resume as normal Thursday.

Transportation and food service for learning center students will resume Thursday, and early childhood programs in the building will return with no interruption.

Lincoln parents should refer to the Skylert message sent Thursday for specific information or contact the school directly at 218-454-6602.

Activities, including fall and winter sports, will continue as planned. The Minnesota Department of Education allows for activities to continue during distance learning if the reason for the transition is not due to substantial, uncontrolled spread of the virus in schools or large-scale outbreaks among staff and students.

“At this time, this is not the case at Brainerd High School. Currently, there is not a large-scale infection of COVID-19 in our student athlete or coaching positions; therefore, we can continue activities and I am allowing our teams to finish their fall season and begin practice preparations for winter activities, while operating within the MSHSL and MDH guidelines,” Larson wrote in Friday’s letter. “Our district team and activities director, in collaboration with our professional partners, believe that it is important to continue our activities program due to the related mental and physical health benefits. “

Free, five-day meal kits will be available to all students 18 and under. Parents can pick up meal kits 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Wednesday at Forestview Middle School. Each kit will include ready-to-eat or microwavable breakfast and lunch items, fruit, vegetables, a half-gallon of milk and a half-gallon of juice. Those interested should fill out a meal kit form at http://bit.ly/studentmealkits. Delivery and alternate site pickups are not available.

Fun ‘N’ Friends will run as normal for elementary students. The district will provide free emergency child care for fifth through eighth grade children of tier one employees, which includes those in the fields of health care, law enforcement, public safety, food and agriculture, judicial services, National Guard, educators and child care. A full list of tier one employees is available on page 23 of the state’s Safe Learning Plan at http://bit.ly/SafeLearningPlan.

Emergency care will be available 7:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, including Tuesday and Wednesday, at Forestview Middle School. Breakfast and lunch will be served, or students can bring their own. Parents can enroll in emergency child care at http://bit.ly/TierOneChildCare.

Students in emergency care who ride the bus after school will depart on the shortened school day schedule with a dismissal time of about 1:30 p.m.. Fun ‘N’ Friends will continue to operate before and after emergency care at Baxter and Nisswa elementary schools and Washington Educational Services Building. Regular fees apply for Fun ‘N’ Friends. Students can enroll at http://bit.ly/FunNFriends.

New bus cards for kindergarten through fourth grade students will be issued to students Monday, Nov. 2. If a student who rides the bus does not bring home a new bus card, parents should call the 218-454-6900.

There is no timeline for when students might return to hybrid learning, but Larson hopes it can happen as soon as possible. To accomplish that goal, she urges everyone in the community to follow guidelines set forth by the Minnesota Department of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help control the spread of COVID-19.

“I want to take this opportunity, on behalf of the Board of Education, to thank each of you for the support and partnership we have shared to make a significant impact in the lives of our students/your children, especially during this unprecedented time of pandemic,” Larson wrote in Friday’s letter. “This collaborative work has been none-other than miraculous. Your efforts and support are genuinely appreciated, especially during this difficult time. Please take care of yourself and your family. Together, we will get through this as a community partnership focused on high quality education.”

Further questions can be directed to [email protected].

All students in Little Falls switched to distance learning Oct. 26, as COVID-19 cases in Morrison continued to rise.

But after a letter from the education department’s Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller on Tuesday clarifying the data schools should consider when determining a learning model, Little Falls Superintendent Stephen Jones announced Friday students could go back to their previous models beginning Nov. 10.

RELATED: Little Falls schools to move to distance learning; S-M, WHA announce changes

Little Falls Community High School. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Little Falls Community High School. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

Countywide data, including the 14-day per 10,000 case rate, is the first point of data schools should consider, Mueller wrote. But the fifth step of the Safe Learning Plan states: “After the initial selection of a learning model for school opening, the decision to shift to an alternative learning model should center on the impact of COVID-19 at the school level, while maintaining awareness of changes in viral activity in the community through continued review of the biweekly county-level case data.”

This means school leaders can consider COVID-19 data specific to each of their school buildings — like confirmed cases and the number of people in quarantine — instead of relying solely on countywide data.

Jones said in a video posted on Facebook and YouTube Friday, the district’s case rate continues to decline, even though Morrison County’s rate steadily increases and sat at 85.59 per 10,000 residents for Oct. 4-17. According to public health officials, Jones said school infection rates remain low throughout the state, meaning the virus is not widely spreading inside school facilities.

Based on this information, Jones said he intends to ask the school board during an upcoming special meeting to authorize a return to in-person learning for preschool and elementary schools and hybrid learning for secondary students on Nov. 10. According to guidelines, Jones said schools that change models must remain in those models for at least two weeks.

Activities and athletics are planned to start back up Monday, Nov. 2.

“All of this comes at a time when we’re still seeing high rates in our county, in the region and even across the state. And so again we ask our community members to help us out,” Jones said. “Our kids are paying a huge price for things that are completely out of their control. So we ask you, as the school district, to please help us with Flyer pride. Demonstrate that you care a lot about our kids and about their education. Help us by wearing those face coverings, doing the social distancing, washing those hands and trying to really stay away from large group settings.”

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at [email protected] or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.