Tuesday, Dec. 22 was the last day of classes for Detroit Lakes Public Schools in 2020 — and when classes resume on Monday, Jan. 4, elementary students and teachers will resume a hybrid learning model, which involves alternating days of in-person and remote learning.

As cases of COVID-19 began to spike in Becker County last month, the district announced plans to gradually phase into a fully remote learning model for all K-12 students when classes resumed in the new year, with an eye toward circumventing a potential holiday-related outbreak. Elementary students would be the last to begin distance learning, starting Monday, Dec. 21, and after that, no more in-person classes for K-12 students would be held until at least Jan. 18.

But when Gov. Tim Walz announced new statewide guidelines for public schools on Wednesday, Dec. 16, the district's COVID-19 response team decided a few changes were in order.

"The new guidelines, as set forth by the Governor for schools, were a bit of a shock for many and we have had to make adjustments quickly," said Superintendent Mark Jenson in a letter to families that was sent out on Thursday.

Among those adjustments was the cancellation of plans to begin distance learning at the elementary level. Rather than holding remote classes on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 21-22, elementary teachers would use those days to, as Jenson put it, "address the new guidelines and prepare for the model of instruction taking place upon return from the break." All elementary students in grades K-5 received two extra days off.

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"With the new order, it is more conducive (to learning) for our students to remain in the hybrid model, in order to get them back face to face sooner," Jenson explained.

Distance learning continued this week at both the middle and high school level, however, with classes ending for all students and staff on Tuesday. Starting today (Wednesday), and continuing until Jan. 4, the district offices will be closed, as no school activities or classes are taking place over the holiday break.

Students in grades 6-12 will remain in distance learning until Monday, Jan. 18, at which time grades K-2 will begin fully in-person learning, and grades 6-12 will go back to hybrid.

Grades 3-5 will remain in the hybrid model until Feb. 1, at which time they will begin face-to-face learning. Depending on where the county's COVID-19 numbers are at that time, they may also begin phasing back into face-to-face learning for middle and high school students.

"We can transition them (grades 6-12) in bands of three," Jenson said, explaining that up to three grades can be moved back to in-person learning at a time.

Once this gradual transition back to fully in-person learning begins, there will be new guidelines that staff need to follow as well, he added.

"All school staff will be required to wear both a face mask and a face shield," said Jenson, noting that this particular guideline came courtesy of a similar strategy being used to slow the spread of COVID-19 in meat packing plants, where early outbreaks of the virus were high.

In addition, he added, there will be voluntary, on-site COVID-19 testing available for school personnel, up to twice a month.

As has been the case since pandemic guidelines began to be implemented back in March, these district learning plans often have to be altered quickly, Jenson said, based on local infection rates. However, signs are currently quite encouraging, as county transmission rates for the virus continue to decline, and an anticipated spike in cases after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend did not occur.

Jenson also noted that, with the approval, and local dispersal of a COVID-19 vaccine, chances are good for school personnel being eligible for vaccination soon.

"I know this year has been incredibly challenging for all of us, and I believe that we may finally be seeing the light at the end of the tunnel," Jenson wrote in his Dec. 17 letter to parents. "Our students desperately need some normalcy — certainly for academics, but also as important, socially and mentally then need to return to school, face to face. If as a community, we can continue to decrease our numbers and follow the health guidelines, we can achieve some sort of normalcy within a very short time."