The East Grand Forks School Board has voted to begin phasing middle and high school students back into full-time in-person learning over the next month.

Per state guidelines, only three grade levels per school building can be transitioned to a less restrictive learning model at a time. District leaders also cautioned at the board's Monday, Jan. 25, meeting that the transition will require extensive planning and ample communication with parents.

The board voted to transition ninth-grade students starting Feb. 8, followed by sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students Feb. 16, and students in grades 10-12 on Feb. 22.

Families still can opt into full-time distance learning.

Middle and high school students in the district are currently attending in-person classes every other day in order to keep their school buildings at 50% capacity. But with COVID-19 case numbers continuing to trend down, both Polk County Public Health and district Superintendent Mike Kolness had signaled that they are cautiously comfortable bringing students back to something more closely resembling normal.

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Board members seemed to agree that the biggest drawback to the decision is that students will no longer be able to avoid exposure to COVID-19, as they have largely been able to do up to this point, and when one student tests positive it's likely several more will be required to quarantine. But board members also agree that the positives seem to outweigh the negatives.

"I think we've reached the point that we've all wanted to get to to get our kids back," board member Matt Foss said. "But let's just make sure that we're ready for it."

Kolness also repeated his hope that with the recent vaccination rollout for district employees, case numbers will stay low.

Sixteen East Grand Forks teachers were invited to be vaccinated in Thief River Falls last week, but due to what Kolness called a breakdown in communication between the state and the district, East Grand Forks lost some of the vaccines allotted to it after some of the teachers, selected and invited to register for an appointment by district leaders, decided not to be vaccinated.

This week, the East Grand Forks School District has been allotted 48 vaccines for district employees. Kolness is optimistic the process will go smoother the second time around.

In other district news, the board approved the retirement of South Point Elementary School Special Education teacher Sue Larson. Larson has taught in the district since 1992, and her retirement will take effect on June 4.