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Area schools reacts to Walz reopening plan

FAIRMONT — Area school districts are weighing their options in the wake of Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s announcement Thursday about the upcoming school year.

Walz said that under his plan, public and charter schools throughout the state will begin the year in one of three models: in-person, distance learning or a hybrid.

He also is requiring schools to give families the option to choose distance learning for their student, no matter which learning model a district implements. Teachers and school employees also will be given the option to work remotely.

The Minnesota Department of Health will advise schools about the 14-day case rate for each county, per 10,000 people. A rate of 10 or more cases per 10,000 people is considered to be an elevated risk of disease transmission within the local community. For zero to 9 cases per 10,000 people, in-person learning for all students is recommended. On the other end of the spectrum, for 50 or more cases per 10,000 people, distance learning is recommended for all students.

Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown looked at the current number in Martin County and found it is five. He said that if school were to start tomorrow, Fairmont could have school every day with all students. However, he said getting feedback from parents, staff and the community is important.

At 9 a.m. Monday, school staff will be briefed on what the administration knows so far, with staff able to voice concerns or raise questions.

Also on Monday, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., parents, students and members of the community are invited to the Performing Arts Center to be briefed and ask questions.

“We want to hear concerns and answer questions,” Brown said. “We want to get a much community input as we can before we make a final decision.”

A Zoom invitation will be emailed to all staff members and parents so they can watch a meeting from home if they prefer.

“Then, on Wednesday at 5 [p.m.], we’re having a special school board meeting at City Hall,” Brown noted. “That will also be broadcast through Gemini Studios and will be on our website. We’ll be providing detailed plans to the community and school board so they can review our plans.”

The Minnesota Department of Education recommends districts let parents know of their plans one week prior to the start of the school year. Brown said Fairmont Area will have a definitive plan by Aug. 28.

For in-person learning, all students and staff will need to wear a mask throughout the day. Brown said the district will have some available if students forget.

Walz on Thursday announced an extra $250 million in funding to provide face coverings for every student, educator and staff member; deploy a COVID testing plan for educators and staff members; and help cover operational costs, such as cleaning supplies and Wi-Fi access.

When it comes to social distancing, Brown said the district is confident it can make it work by using spaces different and repurposing some rooms such as the gyms. He said students also may need to eat lunch in classrooms instead of gathering in the cafeteria.

As for fall sports, the Minnesota State High School League will make a decision that it plans to announce Aug. 4.

Granada-Huntley-East Chain Superintendent Doug Storbeck said he is happy that the decision about whether to have in-person learning or not takes into consideration each school district.

“It’s better than what we experienced in the spring,” he said. “I feel like we’re able to look at our own situation with our numbers of cases and determine what’s best for our community and students.”

He said GHEC will work with other schools in the county and the state health department to make decisions.

“Our goal is to bring students back,” Storbeck said. “We’re planning on coming back in-person, realizing we’re relatively close to the threshold for hybrid learning for our secondary students.”

He said GHEC also is exploring the possibility of starting school a week early. In order to do so, it is required to hold three public hearings, which took place this week. So far, most people have been in favor of the idea, Storbeck said.

“We want to get as many days in person, building relationships with our students, before a possible second wave hits us and forces us into distance learning,” he said.

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