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Fairmont Area schools consider next step

FAIRMONT — The Fairmont School Board had a lengthy discussion Tuesday about whether or not to bring high school students back to school full-time next week.

High School students are currently in a hybrid model, with half of the student body attending school in person during the first two days of the week and the other half attending school in person the last two days of the week. On Wednesdays, the entire student body does distance learning.

The elementary students all came back to school in person last week.

“We have approximately 38 students who have chosen to do distance learning but otherwise the vast majority of elementary students have come back in person,” Fairmont Area Superintendent Joe Brown said.

Brown said at the high school level, they are proposing that starting next Monday, all high school students come back to school full time four days a week, except Wednesday all students will do distance learning.

“That would be for a minimum of two weeks. That’s part of our rolling start that we’re required to do,” Brown said.

Board member Julie Laue asked why students would distance learn one day a week, while they’re in person the other four days.

Brown said that on Feb. 10, they plan to caucus again administratively to take a look at COVID-19 case rates in the region as well as among staff and students. Then they would have another consult meeting with the state departments of health and education to get all students back five days a week.

Brown said that having students back in school four days a week is still considered a hybrid model. He said that they have the authority locally to change the hybrid schedule.

Laue asked what the COVID case number is that the district bases its decision on. Brown said they look at cases among staff, students and the region.

“There was a time where we were averaging 32 staff members gone on a daily basis. Now it’s down to about six so we’re in pretty good shape staff-wise,” Brown said.

Brown admitted that he was under the impression they would bring all high school students back full-time on Feb. 1, but that they need to implement a rolling start. He said students will have the option to come in on Wednesdays if they need extra help or have a vocational class to take.

“My hope is that we get all the kids back, every day, within a few weeks,” Brown said.

He also noted that 20 percent of high school students, or 170 students, have chosen to continue with distance learning.

“Any other time of the year a student can electively choose to distance learn or do PSEO if they qualify, so why is it that we can let students decide to distance learn, but anyone who wants to do PSEO has to qualify? Why is it that we can’t decide to let the students be in person every day?” Laue asked.

“I agree with you… I’m struggling to understand what safety mechanisms does that provide to us and what educational enhancement does that provide to our students?” Board member Mike Edman said.

“If the board wanted all of the students back starting next Monday, I would suggest the board make that a motion and discuss it and the majority of the board wants students back all five days that’s certainly your decision to do that,” Brown said.

Board member Nicole Green pointed out that Minnesota Governor Tim Walz had said that students needed to be given the option to choose distance learning over the course of the pandemic. Brown pointed out that several student-athletes have opted for distance learning.

“I for one am not willing to go against his (Brown’s) recommendation without further inquiry so I would support what Joe is presenting,” board member Rufus Rodriguez said.

Laue said that she had been bringing up questions that she has been hearing parents ask.

“I do believe this, in order to get our economy going again regionally, we need to get all of our students back in school. On the other hand, I also believe that we want our schools to be safe for our students, our faculty and our support staff,” Brown said.

“I think we also need to look at if there are benefits or costs to that Wednesday. For a while Wednesday has been online. It’s important to look at how students are affected by this as well,” Green said.

Student school board member Morgan Hoong said that Wednesdays have become valuable for staff and students because it gives them time to continue to learn and work but also to touch base and catch up on other work.

“I think Wednesdays are a good change in pace from your normal schedule. Also going from a hybrid model to full-time in person is a drastic change after being distanced for so long,” said student school board member Briana Joseph.

Rodriguez said he thought the board had a good discussion on the topic and that it can be re-visited at the next school board meeting.

Moving to other matters, Jake Tietje, Fairmont Area School District’s principal of program development, spoke to the board about Fairmont High School’s proposed vocational expansion project. Tietje said he wanted to make sure the board is aware of the timeline of the project.

On Feb. 9, the public will be asked to vote on a $6.73 million bond referendum for the project.

Tietje shared that he has already gone out and talked to several community groups about the project, including Rotary, Kiwanis and the Exchange Club. A second public meeting was also held in the high schools’ Performing Arts Center last night.

In total, Tietje said he’s personally spoken with more than 75 businesses in the county about the expansion project.

“We want people to vote and we’re doing what we can to remind them,” Tietje said.

Residents in the Fairmont Area School District can vote by mail, but they need to request a ballot and mail it back. Tietje said it’s getting close to crunch time. The ballot must be received by Feb. 8.

In other news, the board approved moving the Feb. 9 board meeting to Feb. 16, as the special election is Feb. 9. The board also approved to cancel the Feb. 23 board meeting.

In other action, the board:

— Accepted a donation of $50 from Lee Baarts for two-room dividers to be used for prom backdrops.

— Approved the employment of Laura Olsen as a special education paraprofessional.

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