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Echo Editorial: For school learning models, one sizes does not, should not fit all

Students and parents could breathe a sigh of relief Monday as word came out that the Ely School District would stay the course with its present learning models, upon the advice of county and state public health officials, for the time being.
That news came in the wake of rising COVID-19 numbers in St. Louis County and across Minnesota, and a jump in biweekly case counts in Greater St. Louis County that would otherwise have prompted the district to make further shifts away from in-person learning.
But school board members this week revised the district’s restart blueprint, and wisely so, to incorporate more data into the district’s decision making process.
When it comes to deciding learning models for public schools, the last few months have shown that it’s not a simple, black-or-white decision.
Instead, there are more than a few shades of grey.
Initially, the state gave schools across the Minnesota the leeway to open this fall using biweekly cases within respective counties as a barometer. St. Louis County, with its vast geographic spread, was quickly split into two subsets and last week was further divided into three, with Ely part of a northern grouping.
But after better than two months of incorporating that data into action, it’s clear the biweekly case count is not a be all and end all.
Case in point: an October testing event in Ely that resulted in one positive case out of 495 people tested. While that was largely hailed as welcome news, the math showed that one case out of 495 equals 20.20 out of 10,000 - or a number that could prompt the school to move to hybrid learning not only for the high school but the elementary as well. That’s a head-scratcher.
Those numbers are set up so that should the data climb to five cases out of 1,000 people in a two-week span, full distance learning is recommended.
That may have seemed fine in theory when developed by the state over the summer, but schools have found it more than difficult in practice, to the point where numerous districts have simply plowed past the numbers and maintained in-person or hybrid learning.
And just recently, that has come with state blessing, as public health officials at both the state and county level have advised school officials, including those in Ely, to look at more than biweekly case rates in their part of the county.
Other factors are now recommended for consideration, including case rates within the community, and perhaps even more importantly, cases within the school.
At least thus far, schools have not been shown to be significant spreaders of the virus. That may be why Gov. Tim Walz spared school districts when he announced several new restrictions earlier in the week.
While we’ve found much to differ with Walz and his administration’s response to the pandemic, the decision to leave schools alone this week was one he got right.
Whether one’s in Ely or Edina, Babbitt or Brainerd, Tower or Thief River Falls, there’s no one size fits all solution when it comes to determining school attendance models.
What works at one location at one instant may not work at another. What’s right for Ely today may not be right in three or four weeks.
Flexibility rather than rigid guidelines work best.
Our students belong in the classrooms and not in front of computers. They need to be involved in activities and athletics and to socialize, rather than be shut out from each other or be tempted by less healthy activities. Mental health must also be part of the equation as we traverse this pandemic.
And let’s face it: the school, with all of the guidelines and protocols in place, is probably as safe a place as one can find for our kids. For several hours a day, there’s structure that does not exist once the school day ends or the weekend comes and kids and families do their own thing.
The state and county public health departments seem to be more cognizant of that as the school year has gone on, and they’ve passed sound advice on to our school district in Ely.
Let’s continue to look for ways to keep our students in school and involved, rather than repeat the mistakes of the spring.

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