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North Branch Schools

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January 24, 2021

1/8/2021 2:14:00 PM
All Chisago Lakes schools will by hybrid by end of January, K-5 to move to full in-person mid-February

The Chisago Lakes School Board held its first meeting of 2021 on Monday, January 4 to discuss new developments with the return to learn model, hoping to get students back into the schools as soon as possible.

Although they have a meeting scheduled for Thursday, January 7, board members felt this topic deserved its own discussion. “We needed this meeting to deal with the learning model coming up,” Board chair Mark Leigh said. “It’s a very fluid situation and Superintendent Dean Jennissen has been working on it very hard with his staff and county health officials.”

The meeting started with swearing in of one new member and two returning members. Jeff Lindeman, the newly-elected member who takes the spot of Jerry Vitalis, as well as the re-elected Brenda Carlson and Lori Berg took their oaths of office. Normally, this would take place at the first regular meeting of the year, but with the early special meeting, the oaths took place earlier than normal.

Since setting their special meeting date at the December board meeting, Jennissen said that the district certainly has received feedback over the last few weeks. “We've had several emails from community members over the last few weeks on their ideas. We have people at all ends of the spectrum.”

However, nobody signed up for the available open forum portion of the meeting.

“We’ve really focused on the safety of our students and staff,” Jennissen continued. “We’ve worked long hours on this and then the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) e-mailed us at 4:30 today [Monday, just an hour before the meeting] and altered some of the stuff we've worked on.”

The latest governor mandate does allow for students to return to full in-person learning on Monday, January 18, but the Chisago Lakes Incident Command Team decided bringing everyone back at that pace was not sustainable.

“We want to be safe with the New Years Holiday and families just coming off of that,” Jennissen said when referencing January 18.

Instead, the district will bring back kindergarten through fifth grade to a hybrid learning model on Wednesday, January 20.

Then, on Tuesday, January 26, grades six through 12 will return to a hybrid learning model.

For the younger students, the district does have a start for full in-person learning at this point, as well. Kindergartners through second grade will move to full in-person on Monday, February 8 and third through fifth grade will be in-person on Monday, February 22.

That staggered start was the last minute MDH change. The original plan that the district’s command team came up with was to return K-grade five all at once on February 8, but MDH said the returns for classes had to feature just three grade levels at a time. “It’s discouraging not to be able to start them all at once like we planned,” Jennissen said, noting that he understands it may strain families that have students in the two different three-grade groups.

For grades six through 12, there still isn’t a return date set for full in-person learning, as that remains tied to county COVID-19 numbers. But, Jennissen said he thought it was a really important step to get them to at least hybrid.

“The numbers need to keep decreasing and our staff stays healthy,” the superintendent in reference to eventually moving to full in-person. “We would like to petition to a full in-person model if we can demonstrate an ability to keep our numbers down. It's our intention to move them to full in-person learning as soon as possible. Hybrid is not an indefinite spot.”

Jennissen did note another challenge to potentially petitioning for return for the higher grades in the future. If MDH stays strict to their three grade groups returning at once and no more, the high school is in a challenging spot with four grades in it. Many different classes in the school feature students from all four grade levels, so there’s a challenge which students would be allowed back.

But, to get to a spot to petition for an earlier return to in-person for older students, Jennissen said that the full in-person elementary learning will have to show that they don’t have transmission and that preventive measures are working.

New board member Lindeman asked why Chisago Lakes’ plans had been different than neighboring districts in the past and potentially going forward, to which Jennissen responded, “Each district needs to think about what's best for them. You might find some that go fully in-person and some in hybrid and some in distance. We have felt as a district to work through this in a more gradual input of students into classes. We feel that if we can start gradually, we can sustain it for a longer period of time.”

Board member Berg added, “I think because we all had different numbers it put all area schools in different positions. You can't do what your neighbors are doing. We had to go by what our numbers were, especially in regards to staffing.”

Jennissen added that the issue earlier this year at the younger levels wasn’t as much transmission among students as it was with staff. “We don’t want to make our decisions based on fear, we want to make them on what we see in the numbers.”

There will be no change to the elementary lunch and specialist locations. There had been thoughts on the state level to require students to eat lunch in their classrooms, but that was nixed when many people raised concerns with having kids in the small classroom removing their masks to eat when most cafeterias have ample space, high ceilings and great ventilation.

Another state level issue was changed as well to not be as restrictive. Close contacts on buses are defined as two rows behind and ahead of the infected person for a period no longer than 15 minutes. That’s what it was initially and it was working, but state  mandates became stricter and there were whole buses getting quarantined for one positive case. There will still be no eating or drinking allowed on buses, however.

“I know these things get frustrating, but they are trying to mitigate the spread,” Jennissen said.

Jodi Budde was on hand from Chisago County Health and Human Services to give the district an update on vaccinations. She said the county currently has the capacity and staff to administer a few thousand vaccinations per week, but that they are only receiving about 100 per week.
There are currently about 1,000 individuals who are frontline health workers who are in line to be vaccinated in Phase 1A. Teachers and staff are part of the Phase 1B vaccinations, but Budde said there has been no guidance on when that phase would begin or how county teachers would be prioritized.

“It’s been a slower start than we would like,” she said, “But, it’s still a start.”

Budde said that when the frontline workers have been vaccinated and they are able to move to Phase 1B, which includes the teachers and staff, they will share that information immediately with the districts within Chisago County.

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