After silence, schools abuzz with activity

by Tom Coombe
“It’s a lonely place without kids in the building.”
High school principal Megan Anderson’s sentiments on Thursday came nearly two weeks into the Ely district’s return to in-person learning, which has included a hybrid model in the high school and full in-person attendance in the elementary school.
“It has been wonderful to have students back,” Anderson said. “Just the sound of their voices in the hallways, basketballs dribbling on the gym floor. It’s an immensely welcome sound.”
The mood was similar across the campus at Washington Elementary, where students returned Jan. 12 after a several-week hiatus with distance learning.
“The return to school has been great,” said elementary principal Anne Oelke. “It is amazing to have our students back, that is what our school is made for to teach kids in person.”
School buses pull up to the circle each morning at the elementary school, while near the arena a steady stream of vehicles pull up, and out come excited students with backpacks and lunch boxes, often in a full sprint toward the school building.
The district’s youngest students renewed old acquaintances and settled back into routines that included lessons in the classroom and the ever-popular recess.
Middle and high school students are in the building only two days per week, for now, but that has been welcomed wholeheartedly.
“When we came back, I greeted kid and stood at the top of the stairs to pepper them with questions,” said Anderson. “And the great majority of them are so glad to be back in school. There were kids who said ‘I never thought I’d say this,’ but it was a being home and not in school stinks kind of thing.’”
Other than a brief period at the start of the school year, middle and high schools students were in the hybrid model this year and elementary was full in-person until Ely joined districts across the state in going to distance learning in November, when COVID-19 cases spiked dramatically in the Ely area and across the state.
From Nov. 23 through Jan. 11, save for Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, Ely students connected with their teachers each day via technology and completed lessons and coursework.
School officials, parents and teachers all acknowledged challenges and obstacles related to distance learning, and Ely was able to resume school Jan. 12 - while many other districts had to wait - because there was already a plan in place to resume in-person education.
There remain districts, largely in the Twin Cities area, that have not had in-person learning since last March, when schools closed statewide.
The return allows parents to choose to continue distance learning, should they choose.
“Staff and teachers are getting back into the groove of having all the kids back - we have missed them,” said Oelke. “The teachers are still tasked with the great responsibility of teaching students in-person and distance learning at the same time. That is a difficult task and I am proud of our teachers for tackling that challenge with creativity and grace.”
High school athletics resumed with practices Jan. 4, and the basketball, hockey and skiing seasons are now fully underway with games and meets.
Currently, there are no active cases of Covid-19 within the school community and five school employees are scheduled to be vaccinated this weekend (see related story) as part of an initiative to vaccinate school staff across the state.
The vaccinations combined with decreasing Covid numbers have school officials talking about an eventual return to full in-person learning for all students.
Current case data shows a rate of 9.66 per 10,000 within the Ely district, below the threshold of 10 that brings a recommendation of full in-person learning.
Numbers in northern St. Louis County are slightly higher, but remain far below peak levels two months ago.
“That decrease is great,” said Anderson. “We’re hoping to see a couple of data points below 10 to look at getting kids back full time.”