Every weekday morning, Evan Lunsetter does something that’s become increasingly uncommon: He gets up and goes to school, in person.
For Lunsetter, a high school senior in the Kittson Central School District, in far northwestern Minnesota near the Canadian border, the school year hasn’t been without sacrifice. Activities and senior-year milestones have been canceled or adapted because of COVID-19. Pandemic-related political tension has seeped into the school day. But he knows he’s one of a small number of students, and an even smaller number of high school students, still hanging on to the normalcy of a school-day routine, every day of the week.
“As long as I’m in school and I get to see at least half of my friends’ faces every day, as long as I’m doing that, I really have no complaints,” he said.
Nearing the halfway mark of this pandemic school year, soaring COVID-19 case numbers and high staff absentee rates have pushed nearly all public schools in Minnesota into distance or hybrid learning. Of the state’s more than 500 public school districts or charter schools, just 45 had some grade levels receiving full-time, in-person instruction last week. Among high schools, only 37 districts or charters reported to the state that they were operating in person.
The factors that allow one school to stay open while others around it go online vary. Using county virus case data, one of the state’s key metrics for schools, 86 of 87 counties now have case numbers beyond the threshold for which distance learning is recommended. Districts’ decisions, however, are based on several elements, including availability of staff, how much the virus is spreading within buildings, and how many students and staff are showing flu-like symptoms. As a result, a patchwork of districts and schools around the state — almost all in rural communities — remain open, despite those high county numbers.
Many of those schools have already had brushes with distance learning.
The Mountain Iron-Buhl and St. Louis County school districts on the Iron Range were offering full, in-person instruction last week but had previously moved to distance learning for a two-week “reset,” and plan to shift again around the holidays.
Reggie Engebritson, superintendent for both districts, said public health officials have encouraged school leaders to factor in how much the virus is spreading in school buildings when deciding whether to keep the doors open. She said neither district has had significant outbreaks, but wider community spread and fears of more spikes after holiday gatherings prompted the district to announce it would move to distance learning from mid-December to the second week of January.
The hope, Engebritson said, is to return to in-person instruction Jan. 11 and stay in that mode through the end of the school year.
“The parents have been very supportive, and both the school boards are very supportive of staying in person as long as we can,” she said. “We are trying to alleviate anxiety of staff, reassure them the best we can, and are focusing on the data.”
When the school year began in September, a quarter of districts were in person, and another 63% were operating under a hybrid model. Three months later, less than 10% of districts are fully in person, and only 6% were offering hybrid learning. Just over half of districts were in full distance learning, with the remainder in some combination of models, many of them including distance learning.
Private schools, a majority of which opened the year with in-person instruction, have also seen change. Many, particularly at the elementary level remain open, said Tim Benz, president of the Minnesota Independent School Forum. But others have had to move online, and several private high schools have ended up on the state’s tracker of schools with COVID-19 outbreaks.
‘You just never know’
Kittson Central, where Lunsetter attends school, opened the year in person and has remained that way. Superintendent Bob Jaszczak said the district has enough space to keep classrooms at 50% capacity, even with most of its 218 students in the building. A few staff members have tested positive or had to quarantine after being exposed to the virus, but Jaszczak said the district hasn’t had large numbers of students or staff out at one time. Still, a single event in the community could cause a spike in cases and force the district into distance learning.
“You just never know. It can be going along great, and then have a large family gathering take place with four or five families together, and then all those kids are out,” he said.
The Canby Public School District, near the South Dakota border in south-central Minnesota, has been in person all year but has come close to going online; Superintendent Ryan Nielsen said there was one two-week stretch where several staff members were in quarantine and a couple more absences would have made in-person learning impossible.
The district has benefited, in a way, from several years of declining enrollment. Canby has about half the number of students it did a couple decades ago but still uses buildings designed for larger classes. It’s been easy to keep classes small and turn big spaces like the wrestling room and school library into socially distanced classrooms.
Nielsen has watched as districts around him have had to shift to distance learning. He’s pleased Canby has held out this long but is aware things could change in an instant.
“I feel we’re kind of in a bubble, which makes me nervous,” he said.
In the Twin Cities, home to dozens of districts and charter schools, just three charter schools reported they were in person last week. And one of those, Discovery Charter School in Inver Grove Heights, had temporarily moved into distance learning for what school leaders hoped would be a buffer period to keep out any COVID-19 cases picked up by students and staff over the Thanksgiving holiday.
Heather Lines, the school’s executive director and principal, said she’d believed short stints in distance learning around Thanksgiving and Christmas would be enough to avoid major problems. But then a school staff member caught COVID-19 and became very ill. And as Minnesota hospitals filled up and more schools moved online, Lines felt she couldn’t hold out any longer. Discovery students will return for two weeks of in-person instruction in mid-December, as planned, but then they’ll be back in distance learning — and it’s unclear when they’ll be back in the classroom.
“Even though I think we’re still in a safe place in this building right now, it doesn’t mean that [the virus] can’t creep in here from some other source,” she said.