The East Grand Forks School Board has voted to transition East Grand Forks Senior High students to full-time distance learning for two weeks beginning Nov. 23.
Elementary students in the district will continue with full-time in-person learning, and students in middle school will continue in their current hybrid model. Activities will continue in person.
At a special meeting Friday, Nov. 13, the board voted 5-1 to transition the high school to distance learning.
East Grand Forks Public School District Superintendent Mike Kolness and Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese recommended the middle school also transition to full-time distance learning in addition to the high school. However, when the board deadlocked 3-3 on that vote, members compromised to keep the middle school in its current model.
"I want to be very clear on some things here," Kolness said. "Number one, we are teetering here on heading into a longer period of distance learning for everyone if we're not careful."
Board members who dissented in the initial vote worried that the harm of two weeks of distance learning would outweigh the good, but those who voted in favor expressed a feeling that their backs were to the wall and, with rising case numbers and staffing shortages, that a shutdown was inevitable.
Polk County now has the highest 14-day case rate in the state, with 191.83 positives per 10,000 people as of Thursday, Nov. 12. That number lags about two weeks behind actual case numbers, and Polk County Public Health does not expect that number to go down anytime soon.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, Polk County Public Health reported 393 new cases this week, bringing the current total of active cases in the county to 501.
School Board Chairman Brandon Boespflug said the intention of the two-week shutdown is to monitor case numbers to see if it has a positive impact, with the possibility that full-time distance learning will be extended beyond two weeks.
But there are questions about the unintended consequences of full-time distance learning. Board members Missy Thompson and Lindsey King feared that when students aren’t in school all day, in controlled environments where masks and social distancing are required, COVID-19 will spread quicker through the community.
District nurse Christy Carlstrom looked at it another way: though there are higher case numbers in the middle and high schools, those students rarely have more than one or two close contacts in the school community because they are in school buildings less frequently. On the other hand, a single positive case in the elementary schools can result in an entire class needing to quarantine.
East Grand Forks Senior High School Principal Brian Loer said that as much as he wants to keep students in school, it is "irresponsible" to fail to act. However, Central Middle School Principal Lon Ellingson said he is deeply concerned about students who struggle academically in the distance-learning model, and he would prefer if his school stayed in the current model.
In response to principals' concerns, board member Eric Useldinger suggested an "out-of-the-box" approach, and deferring to building leaders' wishes until case numbers absolutely necessitated more drastic measures.
Every person at the meeting agreed that students learn best in school. However, Kolness said that's becoming less of an option.
"We really do have to emphasize that the level of personal responsibility throughout our community and county needs to grow," he said. "Right now, the reason there is widespread community spread is because really we're not really behaving properly the way we should be."