Recent statistics released by local and state public health officials have shown an alarming increase in COVID-19 infections among area residents, in line with numbers being seen throughout Minnesota. This increase has prompted Detroit Lakes Public Schools administration and staff to begin making changes to the Safe Learning Plan models at its four main academic buildings, starting this week and continuing through mid-January.
"Our thoughts were that with Christmas and the holiday break coming up, there’s going to be a lot of traveling, and possibly a lot of close contact (with people who have the virus) happening," said Detroit Lakes Public Schools Superintendent Mark Jenson on Thursday.
By keeping students and staff in distance learning mode for two weeks after the holiday celebrations have run their course, he explained, the hope is to have as much of the potential need for testing, self-quarantine and recovery from the virus dealt with as possible before resuming in-person learning, on either a full or part-time basis.
"Our intent was to not pull the kids back (to attending school in person) right after the holidays, and then have to shift back again right away, Jenson explained, if the anticipated post-holiday spike in infections were to occur.
In fact, they want to avoid rapid, back-to-back switches between learning models wherever possible, he added, which is why Detroit Lakes High School — where students and staff have been in full distance learning mode since Nov. 5 — will remain in that mode until at least Friday, Jan. 15.
At Detroit Lakes Middle School, Area Learning Center, Roosevelt Elementary and Rossman Elementary, hybrid learning — a combination of distance and in-person learning, on an alternating day schedule — will continue through the Thanksgiving weekend.
But starting Monday, Nov. 30, both the middle school and ALC (located on the M State campus) will switch to full distance learning mode, while both elementary schools will continue with the hybrid model through Friday, Dec. 18 — after which they will begin full-time distance learning as well.
"They (elementary students and staff) will have a couple of days to adjust to the switch before the holiday break," which starts Dec. 23, Jenson said.
Once the holiday break is over, on Monday, Jan. 4, all Detroit Lakes Public Schools will be in full distance learning mode through Jan. 15, with tentative plans to switch back to hybrid or in-person learning starting Monday, Jan. 18 — if the number of active COVID-19 cases falls below the state-mandated threshold for doing so.
"It's all going to be based off of the numbers," Jenson said, adding that the school district consults regularly with state and county public health officials, as well as holding weekly meetings of its COVID-19 response team, in order to make a determination about switching from one learning model to another for each academic building in the district.
Those decisions are not entirely about minimizing the disruption caused by switching back and forth between learning models, however.
"We’re having some staffing issues, to be honest," Jenson said. "Our teachers are covering for folks who are out, either on quarantine or after testing positive . . . we're running out of bodies."
Students being infected with the virus have also caused quarantine situations that have hit certain classrooms quite hard, he added.
In a letter to parents of students in the district that was sent out on Wednesday, Nov. 18, Jenson addressed various aspects of the district's decision, and noted, "I know this information is disappointing to some. Not only is the MDE Safe Learning Plan for the 2020-21 School Year’s learning model parameters mandating this decision, but the concerns for the health and safety of our students, staff, and general community are at the center of all of our decisions during this pandemic. . . . Thank you for your understanding in these incredibly difficult times."