The East Grand Forks School District plans to return to school this fall have not yet been finalized, but at Monday night's school board meeting, what the upcoming semester will look like began to take shape.
A draft presented at that meeting outlined a plan to send students aged Pre-K through Grade 5 to in-person classes full-time, while students in grades 6-12 would attend in-person classes every other day on alternating A and B days.
The drafted plans presented at the school board meeting are the result of hundreds of hours of work of district officials in close collaboration with Polk County Public Health, the Minnesota Department of Education and the Minnesota Department of Health. EGFSD Director of Teaching and Learning Suraya Driscoll noted that the plan has the blessing of Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese, who reviewed the draft two days before the school board meeting.
Now, the district will seek input from the school community. The board plans to revisit the drafts on Monday, Aug. 17, when it tentatively expect to formally approve them.
A number of East Grand Forks teachers reached Tuesday by the Herald said they were not familiar with the draft presented to the school board, and so were unable to comment on the details. Mark Swenson, a seventh-grade science teacher at Central Middle School, said he expects many questions will be answered on a Wednesday Zoom call with CMS staff.
"A lot of us have stuff that we can draw on and put into place pretty quickly if we need to, and I guess we're just going to have to do that," Swenson said.
There are still a number of big question marks in the plan as it's currently drafted.
There is uncertainty about how special education will work. There is debate about whether the district should prioritize temperature screenings or symptom screenings. And the district has yet to receive guidance on how music classes can safely take place.
The plan lays out many of the broad strokes, however.
In June, state officials instructed districts to formulate three plans: one for fully reopening schools, one for distance learning, and a hybrid of the two learning models that would limit school buildings to 50% capacity. District Superintendent Mike Kolness said districts expected the state to instruct them as to which plan to use, but, on July 30, Gov. Tim Walz announced that districts would be given local control on how to reopen their own districts, with significant state guidance.
The state released a five-tiered reopening recommendation for districts, based on each county's average number of positive COVID-19 tests per 10,000 tested individuals over a 14-day period.
In Polk County, that number is 8.86, just falling into the state's category for districts with an average of 0-9 positive cases per 10,000, which states that districts could safely fully reopen for in-person classes.
But with the Polk County average so close to the state's cutoff, and taking into account that the county average includes numbers from more rural areas, Driscoll said the district opted to take the more conservative approach.
Hopefully, she said, this will offer students some stability in case there is an uptick in cases during the school year - the idea is that if the district is forced to impose more restrictions after school starts, the model they have proposed will prevent more substantial disruption to students' lives and educations.
If there were to be an uptick in cases, secondary-aged students would likely be transitioned fully to distance learning. Kolness said that, in theory, this could allow elementary-aged students to be social distanced throughout all of the district's school buildings.
Regardless of whether that becomes necessary down the road, Kolness said students should expect to be in non-traditional classrooms and buildings when school starts. In accordance with the state's mask mandate, facial coverings will be required in school buildings.
"Polk County Public Health sits with us and says, 'yep, that's a good idea,' or 'nope, don't do that,'" said Brandon Boespflug, School Board president. "So when it comes down to us approving the plan, it's not just a plan that has been worked hard on and put together by our teachers and administrators, but also went to the highest level in the county, public health-wise."
In the meantime, Jim Enright, a history teacher at Central Middle School, said he's trying to prepare for the upcoming school year as best as he can, since he understands there's no way to know with any certainty what the fall will bring.
"Whatever we decide today, and what they decided last night, could potentially change come Sept. 8," he said. "I think they're very uncertain. I think they're doing the best they possibly can considering the circumstances, but I don't think they have any definite answers, and I don't think they possibly can with the way the system is set up right now. I think they're just going to have to go with what they can prepare for."
To an extent, Kolness said the district is expecting to remain flexible and adjust plans in the 30 days leading to the start of the semester.
A pair of surveys administered to East Grand Forks teachers and parents showed that about two-thirds of each group are comfortable returning to in-person learning this fall. Among those who reported having reservations about in-person learning, about 15% to 20% said they would prefer to take advantage of the district's "family flex" plan, which would allow students to use full-time distance learning. That would amount to an estimated 300 to 400 students, Kolness said.
So far, he said about 50 to 60 students have signed up for the flex plan. He expects that number will swell after the district's plan is formally approved.
Swenson said he believes the hybrid model paired with an online option is the right move. Now he said he's just waiting for more details: how many students will be in his classes, whether students can participate in science labs, and whether he will be expected to teach online and in-person classes at the same time, for example.
In his East Grand Forks neighborhood, Swenson said the sense he's gotten from neighbors is that they're apprehensive -- whether that's excited apprehension or nervous apprehension tends to vary.
"Everybody's just wondering where the next shoe is going to fall," he said.