Breckenridge schools shift to distance learning until Dec. 4

Ashley Wiertzema, COVID-19 public information officer for Wilkin County Public Health, said since Nov. 1, the county has had 150 new cases and the current positivity rate is above 25 percent.

Breckenridge Public Schools Superintendent Diane Cordes announced Friday that all classes will be shifting to distance learning from Monday, Nov. 23, through Friday, Dec. 4. Depending on the situation, students are projected to return to in-person learning on Monday, Dec. 7.

Cordes said the district’s top priority is to keep students and staff safe and healthy and to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“We take these decisions very seriously,” Cordes said in a live video posted to the schools’ Facebook page. "We do our best to look at data and to include in conversations critical people who can support us and help us make the best, safest decisions for our students and staff.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 18, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced a “pause” on the state, meaning sports and social gatherings with people outside of the same household will be prohibited and restaurants, bars, gyms and other venues will be shut down for four weeks starting Friday, Nov. 20.

Cordes said despite the Dial Back Minnesota executive order, the school was able to receive permission for their football and volleyball teams to play Friday night, Nov. 20 since the student athletes were not involved in any COVID-19 encounters.

Breckenridge schools were due to remain open, operating under the Minnesota Safe Learning Plan, which alternates learning models to best fit the current COVID-19 status of state schools. Two days after the executive order, Cordes announced the schools would change learning models for the next several weeks. 

The executive order did not extend to schools for several reasons. The majority of current cases in the state are in adults. New guidance from the Minnesota Department of Education also suggests that districts should look at numbers within the school, the buildings and, most specifically, the grade levels. The previous guidance focused on total county numbers.

“The county data is still a piece of that pie, but it is certainly a smaller piece,” Cordes said. “So we found that (new guidance) gives us a more accurate picture of the right things to do as far as adjusting learning models. We will continue to use that guidance and rely heavily on those experts.”

However, since then, Wilkin County Public Health and the incident task force team — a focus group consisting of school board members, staff and community members — recommended the district move to distance learning.

Ashley Wiertzema, COVID-19 public information officer for Wilkin County Public Health, said since Nov. 1, the county has had 150 new cases and the current positivity rate is above 25 percent.

“We want to make data-driven decisions and we use this data to interpret the trends of COVID-19 in Wilkin County,” Wiertzema said.

Cordes said school staff have been working hard to plan for a learning model “pivot.” The time came sooner than expected, on Friday, Nov. 20. While it is the intent to stay in-person, the district and health officials believe it is safest to suspend in-person classes through Thanksgiving. 

Cordes and Deb Jacobs, Wilkin County Public Health director, met with the Minnesota Department of Education to discuss strategies for the holidays. Staff received saliva tests at the beginning of the year that could be ordered and taken at any point, Cordes said. MDE is now encouraging staff to take those tests soon to give the schools an accurate baseline of cases going into the holidays.

MDE also discussed setting up a free community testing center in Breckenridge at the end of the first week of December or early into the second week. Staff and students would be encouraged to utilize the testing center to determine what impact Thanksgiving had on COVID-19 rates in the school.

The community of Breckenridge and other townships and districts within Wilkin County, Minnesota, would be welcome to get tested at the site, Cordes said.

The school board also moved to adopt Walz’s executive order released last week that requires teachers to have an additional 150 minutes of planning time a week, beginning Nov. 30. The order was a source of frustration for school administrators across the state because the added time was difficult to work into existing schedules.

The intent is the extra time will be used to plan for and update the children who are distance learning, Cordes said. There are two different plans to implement the executive order, she said, one for in-person learning and one for distance learning.

For in-person learning, every regularly scheduled Friday will be dismissed at 12:20 p.m. for elementary school students and 12:15 p.m. for Breckenridge High School. The time between the early dismissal and the previous dismissal time will count as the 150 minutes.

For distance learning, every teacher’s existing preparation time will be held from 8-8:50 a.m. daily. The additional preparation time will be held on Fridays at the same time as the in-person model.

Cordes said if the district continues in-person learning for the remainder of the school year, the new executive order will cost them, at most, around $41,000. Cordes said they can consider paying for the cost with CARES Act Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) money.

“The ESSER dollars could be some dollars we use to pay for this,” Cordes said. “Of course, if we pay for this cost out of those ESSER dollars, it just means there’s something else that we don’t pay for.”

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