by Mike Knaak
Consistently climbing Covid-19 case counts in Stearns County may force Sartell-St. Stephen school district to switch to more restrictive learning models.
That was the message at an Oct. 7 listening session on how the district is handling the pandemic.
A handful of people attended the event at Sartell Middle School and three more people asked questions via Zoom.
Starting this past Monday, Riverview Intermediate School, which serves grades three through five, will switch to a hybrid learning plan. Younger students will continue with in-person classes and grades six through 12 will continue the hybrid model. At Riverview, the hybrid model, where students alternate in-school classes with distance learning, reduces the number in a classroom at one time.
State guidelines for how schools operate are based on the 14-day average of cases for 10,000 people in the county. Most recent data shows Stearns County’s numbers in the mid 30s, Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said. If the case rate continues to climb or stays higher than 30, that would force the district to distance learning for all except the youngest students.
On Oct. 8, Stearns County’s 14-day case rate was 34.71 cases per 10,000 people.
“We hope those numbers can come back down, but we are also preparing if they don’t,” Schwiebert said.
Switching to a distance learning mode would affect activities. The state recommends sports and other extra-curriculars end.
“That’s a real bummer,” Schwiebert said. “We’re just starting to get our fall activities going.”
But even if Stearns County’s numbers stay above 30, the Sartell-St. Stephen school district may be able to avoid distance learning because case numbers in the eastern half of the county are lower than the west. Schwiebert said the St. Cloud, Sartell-Stephen and Holdingford districts report numbers in the low 20s while case counts per 10,000 in western Stearns are in the 40s and 50s.
While district-level numbers aren’t publicly reported, cases by ZIP code are available and those numbers from the Minnesota Department of Health, based on cases per 1,000 people, show a similar pattern.
As of Oct. 1, Sartell reported 16.3 cases and St. Stephen reported 14.2 per 1,000 people. Neighboring Sauk Rapids reported 16.1 while to the north, the Rice ZIP code reported 9.2. The numbers to the west jumped with 40.2 cases in the Melrose ZIP code and 23.6 in Cold Spring.
A question submitted via email asked why the district is not using a dashboard to report the numbers of student and staff cases by building, as is done in St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids. Because of the district’s size, Schwiebert said, it would be easy to identify the individuals involved and that would violate health privacy rules. The district is following that policy based on advice from Stearns County Public Health. Sauk Rapids-Rice, a similar-size district, posts a dashboard but that district is in Benton County and follows different advice.
A parent participating remotely asked about instruction for students who are quarantined while awaiting a test result for one family member. Those students, who would normally be attending in-person or hybrid classes have no options while awaiting slow test results, which means the students miss four or five days of classes.
The district is providing distance learning for students who opted out of any in-person instruction but having quarantined students slide in and out of those sessions would be disruptive, Schwiebert said. The district is looking at having a “coach” available online for quarantined students. Meanwhile, the district is handling temporary quarantines like illness absences.
All students will be able to eat school breakfast and lunch for free through Nov. 6. Distance and hybrid learning students can pick up free meals on their home learning days. Meals do not need to be pre-ordered. Meals are available from 11 a.m.-noon at Sartell High School, Door 23, and from 4-5 p.m. at Sartell Middle School’s main entrance.
Schwiebert said the district is aware of less than 10 positive cases.
“We’ve been trying to walk that road of safety,” Schwiebert said. “Keep the masks on.”
In addition to the sparsely attended listening session, school leaders also received feedback on the district’s learning plans via a survey of high school students. Some 776 students of about 1,200 enrolled at the high school responded and overall the opinions tended to be positive. For example on connecting and interacting with teachers during hybrid learning, more than 85 percent of students rated the situation Good, Just Right or Excellent. In the hybrid learning model, students alternate in-school instruction with distance learning.
Students appear to be comfortable with electronic rather than in-person methods for getting help from teachers. More than 86 percent said they used email or the school’s virtual learning platform, Schoology. In response to a related question on communication during hybrid learning, almost 79 percent of students replied that it was just right.
More than 48 percent said “too much” work was assigned during hybrid learning while more than 47 percent rated it “just right.” Overall, more than 86 percent of students said hybrid learning was either Excellent, Good or Fair, with the largest group, 38.3 percent, saying it was fair.
More than 54 percent of students responded that they were adjusting well, while 40.9 percent said they have “struggled, but overall managed.”
The district will gather more feedback when a survey is sent to parents at the end of the quarter.