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Fairmont Area Schools troubled by virus

FAIRMONT — No one at Fairmont Area Schools is enjoying themselves very much these days.

Students are locked into distance learning, which is not generally viewed as a great option by them or by educators. Students also are shut out of athletics and other extracurricular activities because they are not attending school in person in any way.

Parents are frustrated. They see their children struggling to learn at home and unable to participate in after-school practices, games or events.

Other members of the community are chiming in, backing in-person learning and a resumption of sports.

School board members are hearing about all of it, and trying to let the public know: they agree. They just can’t do much about it.

The coronavirus pandemic has hit Martin County hard in recent weeks. Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent Joe Brown says the result is that the school has been “dinged twice.” Because of a high rolling COVID-19 case average in the county, as well as cases occuring in the school, the state of Minnesota recently rejected Fairmont Area’s proposed hybrid learning model that would have allowed some students to be in school on different days of the week. Instead, the state said the school had to send the kids home.

And while the virus case numbers have been falling in recent days — down to 34 Tuesday — it is not clear when students will even get back to a hybrid model, much less be able to attend school in a normal fashion.

At the school board meeting Tuesday evening, board member Mike Edman said he has an outside hope that students could return to in-person classes on Oct. 26, but he was not predicting it.

Edman noted he received 30 emails from district residents Tuesday, with the writers lamenting the current situation. With four children at home himself, Edman said he understands completely. He too wants to see the district’s students in hybrid learning, at the very least. But he said district residents do not need to convince him to do something. They need to convince the Minnesota Department of Education.

Board member Dan Brookens vehemently argued that the state is being “patently unfair,” and has put the district in a “numbers trap” by using a flawed methodology (on virus case counts) more suited to areas with much higher populations, such as the Twin Cities. Brookens said he wants to fight to get the students back in school, and wondered aloud if the state is really protecting them or instead doing them harm of a different nature.

Brookens earned quick backing from board member Mari Myren, who said exceptions to the state’s rules are happening elsewhere.

But as of the board meeting Tuesday, the state’s rules remained Fairmont Area’s rules, and Martin County was still seen as a COVID hot spot. Brown noted that a week ago, Martin County was second only to Waseca County in the entire state on its 14-day average of cases.

Brown has been sending emails back and forth with state officials to try to get some answers on when Fairmont Area students could return to school if the case count trend continues to drift downward. He said it appears students would have to wait four weeks even after the case count average reached the appropriate level.

Within the district itself, there have been seven positive COVID tests among staff, with six currently quarantined. More than 50 staff members have been sent home or quarantined because of symptoms or close contact with the virus.

Three elementary students have tested positive for COVID-19, and 25 elementary students are currently quarantined. More than 270 have been sent home or quarantined with symptoms.

At Fairmont High School, eight students have tested positive, as well as one coach and two food service employees. Twenty-four students are currently quarantined, and 246 students have been sent home or quarantined because of symptoms or close contact with the virus.

Board member Nicole Green relayed to board members that she has been studying Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s emergency order requiring school districts to provide a safe and effective learning environment during the 2020-2021 school year. She made it clear that the state — not local districts — has the ultimate say under the order. Edman acknowledged the fact, as did board member Rufus Rodriguez. Other board members also understood the reality, even as they all were discouraged by it. Green concurred.

“There’s a lot of emotion right now in our community, in our schools, with our students, because we all are tired of this and we want to get back to doing what we love to do,” she said.

Adding to the frustration, nearly 350 students are receiving free daycare and instruction at Fairmont Elementary School because the district must provide free daycare to the children of local workers who have been deemed “essential.”

So buses are running, bringing many kids to school while another 1,300 students are forced to stay at home. Leaving critics to ask why it makes sense to cluster some children together but force others apart.

Another 40 to 50 students will return Monday, as the state has agreed to allow Fairmont Area to bring back students involved in English Language Learning, credit recovery, special education, the welding shop and the automotive shop.

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