Public schools in Detroit Lakes are taking a sharp turn back toward normalcy this school year, pulling away from many of the precautionary measures put in place over the past 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unlike last school year, facemasks will not be required for students or staff inside school buildings, there’ll be no mandated quarantining for COVID-19 close contacts, and social distancing will not be required during the school day or at school activities, including sports.

As laid out in the school district’s recently-released Return to School Plan, families are expected to screen for symptoms of the illness at home, stay home from school when feeling sick, and report any symptoms to the district nurse.

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Classes start Tuesday for Detroit Lakes High School, Middle School; students in grades K-5 to return Thursday

There will also be no district-provided distance learning option for elementary or middle school students who are sick with the virus or close contacts who choose to self-quarantine at home; those days will now be treated as any other sick days. For high school students, some flexible remote learning options are available through the school’s new Laker Online virtual high school.

Masks will still be required on school busses, as per federal mandate, and schools will continue to be cleaned and sanitized at a level that supports the mitigation of COVID-19. School HVAC systems will continue to operate at maximum capacity to ensure high air quality.

The Return to School Plan forgoes many of the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Minnesota Department of Health, which continue to endorse indoor masking, close contact quarantining and social distancing in schools.

Superintendent Mark Jenson said the plan reflects the cessation of state requirements on local schools, along with a strong desire by local families and school leaders to get kids back in classrooms full-time and an “overwhelming” community sentiment against mandatory mask-wearing.

“The overwhelming message we’re hearing from family members is, to not require masks,” he said. “I would say, just a rough estimate, 9-to-1, I’m getting emails and having conversations with people asking us to leave it up to the parents. And we’re listening.”

He added that mask-wearing is still an option, and it’s one the district supports: “Today, we have staff members that are wearing masks and we fully support them, as well as families who choose to wear masks.”

Detroit Lakes schools are among many in Minnesota no longer requiring masks, quarantining and other similar measures this year; plenty more have chosen to keep such measures in place. School districts have been facing pushback either way, as the population is divided on how best to move forward during the pandemic and protests on issues like mask mandates and vaccination are ongoing.

“It’s hard,” Jenson said. “The difference between last year and this year is, you had a governor and the Minnesota Department of Education who had a 32-page Safe Learning Plan, and school districts were required to create three separate learning models (in-person, hybrid and distance learning). We no longer have that. The governor no longer has executive powers, and the Department of Education has essentially given that control back to school districts.”

In the Detroit Lakes district, that control starts with the local COVID Response Team, which Jenson said meets at least once every other week. The team monitors active COVID-19 cases within the schools and greater community, determines whether the district’s pandemic plans require any adjustments, and then makes recommendations to the school board accordingly.

If there’s a notable increase in local COVID-19 cases, then the current plan for Detroit Lakes schools could change. Masks and other safety measures could be put back in place temporarily, at least at the school building or buildings that are most impacted.

But Jenson said the primary focus right now is on getting kids back into classrooms on a consistent basis.

“Our goal is to keep our kids with our teachers,” he said. “Last year, we did not find that quarantining students impacted (COVID-19) transmission. It’s not scientific, but we couldn’t find a case where a kid transmitted it to another kid, or a teacher to a kid. And the state data shows, if you look at the scores in testing, you see the kids suffered academically. So we want to keep kids in the classroom, in front of a teacher, as much as possible.”

The latest Minnesota testing data, released on Aug. 27, shows a significant decline in reading and math test scores when compared to pre-COVID scores. Reading scores dropped by 7% from 2019 to 2020, with just 54% of students who took the state reading test meeting or exceeding the standards; in math, that number is just 44% -- an 11% drop from the year before. The state department of education has pledged to partner with local school districts to help recover these losses.