Balancing safety and education in District 861


From: Karl Sonneman



I want to  begin by thanking Winonans for the massive number of letters and phone calls that I and other board members have received since last Thursday’ School Board meeting. I speak for myself here and not for the School Board. Many of you simply wanted to tell us how you would like to see the schools open in September. Some of you pointed out that we already had surveys and wondered why more public comment was necessary. Others were upset with how the board meeting proceeded. Your participation in this process speaks loudly of the marvels of democratic government and the right of the public to be heard before it. Again, thank you for reaffirming my faith in democracy.

First, let me speak to my role in the Thursday meeting. I went to the meeting believing that we were headed toward a consensus of how to proceed with opening schools this fall, but I was unhappy with the draft of the resolution that had been circulated. The plans for reopening school had only become available to the board that afternoon. I did not believe that our intention was ultimately to adopt that resolution, but rather we would discuss it, amend it and lay it over to a later meeting. The board discussion would provide feedback to the superintendent and we could see more detail in the plans when we met again. A key reason that I ultimately sought delay was that we needed to hear from the public now that a local school reopening plan had been proposed. I did not think it wise to adopt a plan in the resolution without first getting public input on the actual proposed plan.

I have given this matter great thought based on both the public comments and on the much broader discussion of school openings found in state and national news. Among the latter over the several days since Thursday, I read reports of the school opening plans considered by Duluth, Rochester, and elsewhere, and I learned of the Cotter plan. We also learned that there has been a COVID-19 outbreak among high school athletes in Winona County and that the Winona County Health Department is attempting to trace contacts from football games played on Paul Giel Field, a WAPS’ facility. The virus is surging among young people, and today the Washington Post reports that nationally almost 100,000 children have contracted the virus over the past two weeks. This information should be of great value to our deliberations, and was not known at Thursday’s meeting.

I have read comments that I have received, and they have contributed to what follows here. We want to provide the best education for our children. At the same time, we want to protect the health and lives in our community. The COVID virus has presented us with immense challenges to do both. If we move toward maximizing the educational opportunities for our children, we risk our  and our children’s health and the community’s health; and if we act in ways that maximize our opportunities to protect health and slow the spread of the virus, we may risk our children’s education.   

The reality is that the virus is in charge. It is folly to claim that it is under control in Minnesota or in the United States – or in the Winona schools. As is repeatedly reported, we need testing and tracing to gain some measure of control. Governor Walz has said this in his Executive Orders and his school reopening plans. He has made testing and tracing a condition for in-person learning plans. Yet the governor had to know that testing that meets the standard for opening the schools safely is not happening. The hope that there will an adequate testing system in September  is just that: A hope. It is not enough to open schools upon this hope. There is no present and achievable plan for adequate testing and tracing if schools are to open. Without that, there is no realistic strategy to safely and completely open schools to in-person learning. Without the availability of adequate testing and contact tracing, distance learning may be the best option to address the known risks of the virus.   

In order to move beyond this dilemma, we need to examine the competing risks. The risk of COVID-19 can be broken into two parts: the risk of transmitting the disease from an infected person to another person, and the risk of getting seriously sick or dying from COVID-19. COVID-19 is an airborne virus. The probability of exposure to the virus is based on the number of contacts with other persons, the probability that one of those persons is contagious with virus, and the length of time of exposure to an infected person. The probability of becoming seriously ill depends on the individual, but we accept that older persons and persons, including students, with adverse health conditions have more risk here. Younger persons have less risk of serious consequences, but still have some risk as anecdotal evidence informs us. Youth can transmit the virus.

The risk of transmittal goes up if one is indoors, is in the presence of an infected person for more than 10 minutes, or is not using a mask or practicing social distancing. The risk goes down when one is outdoors, has only a brief encounter, and uses a mask and socially distances. Unfortunately in a pandemic, a school classroom is indoors, puts the same persons in contact with each other for upwards of one hour or more, and has limited options for socially distancing. Wearing a mask may be problematic with younger children or for long periods of time. Moreover, full-time school day after day repeats the possibility of contact with an asymptomatic person. Schools are plainly a high-risk area to transmit the virus; and the risk of serious illness falls much more on teachers than on their students.

On the other hand, the risks of loss of educational progress are also real. Full-time in-class learning is important and is not easily duplicated by various programs of distance learning. A balancing factor here is an improving understanding of distance learning using computers. We also recognize that in-person learning promotes social and emotional gains for students. The in-person engagement of teachers with students is not duplicated through engagement over computers.

If we are to reopen schools, we must evaluate how each plan addresses these risks. The object of a good reopening plan would be to reduce the probability of the virus being passed onto someone in school, while at the same time allowing significant teaching to take place between teachers and students. A plan may recognize some risk of transmission, but must take account of who is vulnerable in the circumstance where the risk of transmission is large. A hybrid plan of some in-school learning and some distance learning can best balance these risks. The plan may need to recognize differences in learning at different ages, and among different learners at any age level, including particularly those students with special needs. I am concerned that the plans developed to this point for Winona do not adequately balance the health risks with the education risks, and do not attempt particularized solutions that address more individualized risk situations.

If nothing better is offered, I will support Option #4 as found in the superintendent’s propose plans, which is hybrid learning on an A/B system for elementary students and distance learning for grades seven through 12. I agree with the proposal that students may elect full distance learning if it is not part an adopted plan. I also would support more in-person learning for special needs students, for the Alternative Learning Center and throughout the middle school, than is proposed in Option #4. Ideally, I want to see how teachers will be assigned work before we are asked to approve a plan. I will look for compromises when possible to get us to a consensus that opens schools safely from a public health stand point and upon sound educational ground

Member at-large of the School Board for District #861

The views expressed herein are those of myself and are not the views of the School Board or of District #861.


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