Back to school?

AT DEADLINE: According to the current MN Health Department chart, Ely will be in person learning for all students. At a 14-day COVID-19 Case Rate of 5.5 in St. Louis County, Ely falls in the 0-10 category which is in-person learning for all students.

by Tom Coombe
In advance of a Thursday announcement from Gov. Tim Walz that will determine the direction of the 2020-21 school year, officials in Ely waited with the rest of the state and prepared for students to return to the campus.
Unclear if September will begin with distance learning, in-person classes or a combination of the two, Ely administrators and staff moved closer this week to developing plans for all three contingencies.
Superintendent Erik Erie, meanwhile, told board members at Monday’s monthly study session that initial surveys showed parents are comfortable sending their students back to buildings that have been closed since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There are certain elements of our families who don’t feel comfortable, but it’s less than I expected,” said Erie. “That was nice to see so many putting faith in our school. If the governor allows us (to resume), a majority of our families feel we can do that successfully here.”
Detailed results of the survey sent to parents of both elementary and secondary students weren’t shared at the meeting and were not available as of deadline.
Walz’s announcement was widely anticipated across the state, and media reports in the hours leading up to it indicated he might give individual school districts some leeway in choosing among the options, with minimum safety requirements for schools that open and mandates that districts must allow distance learning for families who choose it.
Erie, school administrators and key school staff have met numerous times over the summer to prepare for the possibilities, which has included direction that schools may move from one scenario to another, depending upon local or statewide COVID-19 concerns.
The protocols in Ely are being designed to allay safety fears, according to Erie.
“We’re doing everything to show families that if they decide to send their students here, that we’re taking every precaution possible so their students are safe,” said Erie.
That includes a series of efforts including the potential hire of additional staff, safety protocols including temperature checks and masks and limiting furniture in classrooms.
Erie said that draft plans would be developed in the aftermath of Walz’s announcement and presented to the school board in advance of the start of the 2020-21 school year, which is set to begin Sept. 8. Parents and faculty will also be surveyed again.
Erie said the district has ordered additional personal protective equipment and has heard from the Ely Community Care Team, which has offered to help with providing masks.
Additional cleaning supplies will also be ordered.
“If we do have the hybrid we’re going to have do more cleaning,” said Erie.
That has resulted in plans to post for additional, temporary custodial positions, and the district also may hire a second school nurse, so one can be positioned in both the Washington and Memorial buildings.
“We need nurses in both buildings especially if we are doing temperature checks and other health safety protocols,” said Erie.
The various measures including additional staffing are likely to have a significant impact on the district’s budget, although neither the impact nor a source of additional funding were identified this week.
The Ely district is being guided by a 16-page planning document from the Minnesota Department of Health and a more detailed 100-page missive.
Recommendations cover everything from social distancing in the classroom and minimizing crowding to taking some courses outside and altering how lunch would be provided.
Ely is likely to come up with specifics in its various plans, and Walz’s statewide indoor mask mandate encompasses schools.
Erie said the district got some positive news with a change in guidelines regarding transportation.
“The department of education realized (the guidelines) weren’t realistic, so we’re looking at going to a capacity of 50 percent,” said Erie. “That’s moving us from 13 students on a 77-passenger bus now up to probably 36. That’s going to make a big difference for us in transporting students.”
From mid-March through the end of the 2019-20 school year, Ely students did not attend class in-person and joined their counterparts statewide in distance learning.
The format had both pros and cons, according to district administrators.
High school principal Megan Anderson said some families felt there was more interaction with faculty via distance learning, while some enjoyed the flexibility.
“The social piece was something both students and teachers missed,” said Anderson. “Not being able to see each other everyday.”
Anne Oelke, principal at Washington Elementary, said the district “definitely heard loud and clear” that families wanted more options for explicit instruction for core subjects, rather than watching videos.
The school decisions in Ely and across Minnesota come amid a national debate, with some people suggesting schools reopen and others recommending a more cautious approach.
While some states are dealing with a resurgence of COVID-19 and reimposing restrictions in the midst of rising case counts and hospitalizations, Minnesota has seen more positive trends.
Deaths associated with the pandemic have slowed to the single digits per day, and both hospitalizations and intensive care cases are down by more than half since peaking in May.
Deaths and hospitalizations have also fallen far short of earlier projections, and positive test results have hovered around four-to-five percent, well short of the 15 percent threshold that state health officials say would signify a concern.
Access to technology, both with devices and high-speed internet, was also a significant obstacle in Ely.
The district is working on one front to remedy the situation, authorizing up to $350,000 in spending Monday to move ahead with a “one-to-one” technology initiative that has been in the works.
The move will allow all students to receive a district-issued device, and the plan presented this week calls for most students to receive Chrome books.
Board members approved the plan on a 5-1 vote, with James Pointer in opposition.
Pointer has been a skeptic of the initiative, contending that students spend too much time in front of computers or phone screens and charging that the move does nothing to solve Ely’s community-wide issues related to access and connectivity.
“We need to level the playing field on connectivity,” said Pointer. “To me it’s more urgent than getting a device for every single person when probably so many kids already have devices.”
Oelke said devices would supplement rather than replace teacher-to-student instruction.
“These are tools but they are not going to replace my teachers,” she said. “The hands-on, small group are important. I will never put a kid on a screen for a long amount of time in the elementary if I can avoid it.”
• At Monday’s special board meeting, members also accepted the resignation of elementary teacher Amanda Vanderbeek, who is leaving to take another position in Ely.