by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Leaders at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) and the Lewiston-Altura School District are still considering whether, how, and when to potentially switch secondary students to in-person learning five days a week, after Minnesota updated its guidance for middle and high schools.
Minnesota’s updated guidance allows for hybrid or in-person learning when districts can put particular COVID-19 protocols in place. For local schools that are already implementing hybrid learning for middle and high school students, the updated guidance did not signal an immediate shift to in-person learning five days a week.
WAPS leaders are currently discussing the plan they could follow if they decide to shift to in-person learning, WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said. The plan is similar to plans WAPS announced before the state guidance change, with the exception of a potential shift to in-person learning. Under the plan, if WAPS were to decide to make the change, hybrid learning would be in place until spring break starts on March 8. Ninth through 12th graders at Winona Senior High School would then be in distance learning from March 15 through 24. After returning to school following spring break or the post-spring break distance learning period, middle and high school students would remain in hybrid learning until the final quarter of the school year starts on April 5 and shift to in-person learning at that time. “We want to reduce the number of shifts we make,” Freiheit said about changing learning models. WAPS will let families know of any learning model changes by the time spring break starts, Freiheit said.
Lewiston-Altura Superintendent Gwen Carman hopes to announce the district’s plans in the near future, she wrote in an email.
“We will spend the upcoming days problem solving and planning so we can be prepared for all students in the buildings as soon as we can,” Carman wrote in a post on the district’s Facebook page. “I am excited ... and I truly believe we are getting closer ... we also continue to need everyone’s diligence with face coverings and social distancing to keep our case rates low,” she continued.
The state updated its guidance about social distancing. The guidance states that middle and high school students have to stay six feet apart whenever possible, and when that distancing is not possible, they have to stay three feet apart.
WAPS leaders are considering whether the middle and high schools have enough space for students to stay three feet apart in classrooms and hallways, Freiheit said. A shift to in-person learning would result in more students being in the building at one time, as students are split into groups that attend class in person on alternating days during hybrid learning. “We want to make sure we don’t have class sizes that are so huge that it makes that difficult to get,” Freiheit said of the three foot distance. Lewiston-Altura leaders are considering how to arrange classrooms to create as much space as possible, Carman wrote in a post on the district’s Facebook page.
The guidance also states that schools are required to keep track of where students sit in cafeterias to help with contact tracing, and it strongly recommends that schools keep students six feet apart during meals. When the six feet is not possible, it says schools have to have as much space between students as possible. It strongly recommends that schools keep students in smaller groups that stay six feet apart during meals, as well.
To address the social distancing guidance applying to cafeterias, district leaders are considering how many tables are needed and where to put them in the cafeterias, Freiheit said.
Additionally, the guidance states that schools are not required to have a particular length of social distancing between students in the classroom once the county case rate — the number of cases over two weeks per 10,000 people — drops below 10. The unofficial case rate for Winona County was 11.5 as of February 23. That rate was calculated with the number of cases reported daily by the Minnesota Department of Health. If the county case rate is lower than 10, however, schools still have to have as much distance between students as possible, the guidance says.
The state also updated its guidance regarding districts using the county case rate in making decisions about which learning models to put in place. The update represents a shift from past guidance that placed significant emphasis on districts considering the county case rate when choosing which learning models to implement. Per the updated guidance, the county case rate by itself does not influence whether a school has to move to a learning model with less in-person learning. Instead, schools are strongly encouraged to discuss moving to a model with less in-person learning with public health officials if, while implementing hybrid or in-person learning, students and staff who are absent or leave school early with flu or COVID-19 symptoms in one week reach about five percent of the school’s total students and staff.
The guidance suggests that school leaders “strongly recommend” that students and families in hybrid or in-person learning get tested every two weeks as well.
As WAPS leaders review the guidance, they are keeping several scheduling considerations in mind, too, Freiheit added. If the lunch schedule changes to ensure social distancing in cafeterias, the rest of the school day schedule would also change, for example, she said. If WAPS makes the learning model change, district leaders would set aside several days for staff to plan for the shift as well.
Lewiston-Altura leaders are also considering protocols for quarantining, as more students would be considered a close contact in the event of a positive case, Carman wrote. Additionally, district leaders are thinking about the state guidance once the county case rate drops below 10 and how bus capacity and transportation routes would be affected, as well as spring events including prom, graduation and concerts.
Keep reading the Winona Post for updates on local schools.