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Waseca Public Schools is moving all kindergarten through 12th grade students to distance learning due to rising COVID-19 cases in the county and schools. The students will start on Nov. 30 with an undetermined return date. (Bailey Grubish/Southernminn.com)

Superintendent Eric Hudspith shared more details about Waseca schools' shift to distance learning at the Waseca School Board meeting on Thursday, Nov. 19.

Hudspith notified families on Tuesday, Nov. 17 that all students in kindergarten through 12th grade would begin distance learning on Nov. 30, until at least the middle of December, due to increasing COVID-19 cases. 

“We all unfortunately had to make a decision this week that we will be moving to distance learning Nov. 30,” School Board Chair Julie Anderson said. “This was not a decision any of us at this table wanted to make, but clearly this situation in our community and our schools called for it.”

The schools have had a few positive cases over the last several weeks, but the district jumped to 14 active cases in the last week. The challenge is the positive cases and the amount of staff and students who then need to be quarantined. The schools are averaging 135-150 students absent and 30-35 staff in quarantine from Nov. 17 to Nov. 19.

“Fortunately, our principals and our staff have been extremely flexible,” Hudspith said. “We've been able to cover and fill these absences ... but we know that's probably something that is going to be hard to sustain. This morning, we were short a bus driver and had to adjust the routes for today and tomorrow, but anymore and that would be a challenge for that.”

Another factor in moving to status level red is the county's 14-day case rate per 10,000 residents is projected to be more than 100 in the next set of two-week data. This figure puts the county well over the Minnesota Department of Health recommendation of moving to distance learning with more than 50 cases per 10,000 in a 14-day period.

“I'm not one that’s going to say we’re going to be in distance learning until X date,” Hudspith said. “We’re going to be in distance learning until we're in a position where we can get kids back in our buildings, that's going to be our goal...as soon as we’re ready we're going to be ready to come back.”

Students will finish hybrid learning on Nov. 23 before having no school Nov. 24-27 due to staff preparation days and Thanksgiving break. On the staff preparation days, students will have the opportunity to complete some work that needs to turn in for the end of the trimester. Teachers and students can arrange this.

Once distance learning begins, there will be limited in-person classes for: special education students, English language learning students, hands-on classes, the nursing program and other exceptions. The principals are working on who can come into the classroom and if there is enough staff available to support the in-person programs.

The Alternative Learning Center is an exception for limited in-person learning in the district as well. Hudspith said with the small class sizes, some students in the ALC may meet in-person. This is still being worked on and it might not be ready for Nov. 30, but it will be communicated further with those students.

Hudspith also highlighted is childcare for the youngest learners in the district. At this time, childcare is only for Tier 1 families and once the staff know the numbers on how many families are in need, and depending on available staff, more families may be able to sign up.

“One of the first things that I thought of right away is, can we leave our elementary learners in and take the high school to distance learning, but unfortunately our elementary students are feeling it just as much as our high school is right now,” Hudspith said.

Pre-kindergartners will continue with no changes to the learning model for now.

Food service is available while students are in distance learning. Curbside pick up is going to be available five days a week at Hartley Elementary and the Waseca Junior and Senior High School and will be hot meals daily. He spoke of working with the district transportation providers to do pop-up food distributions in high need areas, but it is still a work in progress that he hopes will be operational shortly after Nov. 30.

Hudspith and the school board also addressed activities in the district, which will be paused starting Saturday, Nov. 21 per Gov. Tim Walz's executive order.

Hudspith said a positive aspect is that the football and volleyball teams will be able to play one last time on Friday, Nov. 20 because both are important. He shared that the school will be working with coaches on how to approach winter sports soon. Along with all the paused school activities, all Waseca Community Education classes are also canceled for now due to Walz's order. 

“I just wanted to make sure that the community and the board knows that we have used our time wisely,” Hudspith said. “We will use the next several days wisely and I am confident that we are prepared to make this as best as we can for the kids and the teachers.”

Survey highlights  

While preparing to switch to distance learning, Hudspith sent out a survey last week to staff, students and families to get their opinions on how they feel the district is doing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Hudspith said 173 staff responded to the survey and he started by listing the positives before sharing the challenges.

Staff appreciate having Mondays to prepare for the week, as well as enjoy seeing students regularly and collaborating with colleagues during this time. However, some staff struggle with time and workload, Hudspith said. The staff also said they believed the consistency and mitigation strategies for COVID-19 safety in the buildings could be improved.  

Nearly half the staff said their comfort level with safety strategies for COVID-19 in the district was at a four or five on a one through five scale, according to the survey.

For family responses there were 435 with 90% of them in hybrid learning and 10% in distance learning.

Some of the positives Hudspith highlighted is the flexibility of hybrid learning for sleep and other activities. They also stated the days in school and the social interactions their children get are positive. Hudspith said some families feel that nothing is going well during this time.

Three-quarters of parents indicated a four or five on a one through five scale when asked how they feel about the safety strategies. The top two improvements parents said they'd like to see are more in-person learning and increased live teacher instruction, according to the survey.

Students in seventh through 12th grade were able to answer the survey questions with 82% in hybrid learning and 18% in distance learning.

Students listed the learning model's flexibility and being able to be in school with friends and teachers as positives. Some students also felt nothing is going well right now in school, Hudspith said.

Sixty-four percent of students indicated a four or five on a one through five scale when asked how they feel about the district's safety measures. 

Hudspith said they'll take into consideration the feedback from staff and families about specific schools and grades. 

“Our goal is obviously to get back to in-person learning in whatever form that can be,” Hudspith said. “We got some really constructive feedback here that is going to help us do that.”

Reach Reporter Bailey Grubish at 507-837-5451 or follow her on Twitter @wcnbailey. ©Copyright 2020 APG Media of Southern Minnesota. All rights reserved.

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