School moves to hybrid model

Switch starts next week, with secondary students in school two days a week and elementary staying in-person full time

by Tom Coombe
The Ely School District is moving to a hybrid model of education for students in grades 6-12, starting next week.
The decision by school administrators came Thursday, amid rising COVID-19 case numbers in Greater St. Louis County and the Ely area.
It means middle and high school students will attend classes in-person two days per week and receive distance learning for three, but children in grades K-5 will continue daily in-person learning.
Ely will shift gears after just two weeks of classes in the wake of data that put the district above the threshold to consider a move to hybrid learning, but in conflict with a recommendation from St. Louis County Public Health to continue in-person learning for at least another week.
“I think the administration as a whole is supportive of going to a hybrid model,” superintendent Erik Erie said Thursday, during a meeting of the Ely Safe Learning Plan Advisory Council.
For a second consecutive week, COVID-19 case numbers in Greater St. Louis County rose above the threshold to consider a switch to the hybrid model.
According to data released Thursday morning, biweekly case rates to 13.74, up from 10.87 a week before and 4.87 two weeks ago.
At a school board meeting earlier in the week, some members pressed for the board to use that data, which is identified in the district’s “restart blueprint,” and school officials have also faced pressure to consider local, Ely-specific data as well.
Administrators cited the numbers, and high school principal Megan Anderson said she had also been in contact with representatives of Essentia Health.
“We would love to have kids here all day, every day, but I feel right now we have to look at this,” said Anderson.
Erie conceded that county public health officials had advised no change, and indicated neighboring districts including Virginia and St. Louis County 2142 would continue with in-person learning, despite the increase in numbers.
The county, with guidance from the Minnesota Department of Health, had earlier advised that outbreaks that “do not have a strong connection to the school are unlikely to result in a recommendation to a hybrid learning model.”
School officials were told that the jump in numbers was largely linked to COVID outbreaks at “several long-term care facilities,’ including Carefree Living in Ely.
In the restart blueprint, the district indicated it would use Greater St. Louis County data to determine school model decisions, but local numbers have also come into play the last week, coinciding with a rise in local cases.
The number of current active cases in the community was unclear as of Friday morning, but St. Louis County’s COVID-19 dashboard showed Thursday that cumulative cases attributed to residents of the 55731 zip code climbed to 28. That’s up from 21 seven days earlier, 12 on Sept. 1 and nine on Aug. 27.
Another set of data, not previously available, added another wrinkle to the discussions.
Biweekly cases per 10,000 within the 55731 zip code climbed over 30 according to the latest numbers, which Erie indicated “is hard to ignore.”
But Erie added that some neighboring districts, that are continuing full, in-person learning, have pockets of areas within their districts with higher numbers.
The school board gave administrators the authority to move between learning models and they have consulted weekly with the advisory council, a group including administrators, school staff, parents, students and medical representatives.
While Erie said schools have been cautioned against “ping-ponging” between models, the decision could be revisited as soon as Thursday, Sept. 24.
In the meantime, the district is preparing for the switch and notified parents within an hour of Thursday’s decision.
School took place as usual Friday, with all students attending in-person, while Monday has been designated as a day off for grades 6-12 students to give faculty more time to prepare.
The following day the hybrid model begins, with one group of secondary students attending classes in-person on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other would be in-person on Thursday and Friday, with all grades 6-12 students distance learning every Wednesday.
Ely’s roughly secondary students were already split into separate “cohorts” for in-person learning, in an effort to limit spread, and those groups will be further divided with the switch to the hybrid model.
The rise in local case numbers comes just as students have returned to the classroom, in Ely and elsewhere, for the first time in nearly six months.
The 2020-21 school year started Sept. 8 with in-person learning and about 90 percent of the district’s roughly 550 students on campus, according to school officials.
The school adopted a “restart” plan in late-August that includes numerous safety procedures and protocols, including mandatory face coverings indoors, staggered arrival times and adoption of a cohort model in the high school to segregate groups of students.
Ely school officials have also acknowledged COVID-19-related concerns and say the district has taken additional steps beyond those that are required, including daily temperature checks, to provide for a safe environment.