Students move to distance learning through Christmas break

Mike Milbrandt
The halls of the Montevideo Middle School will be silent at least through the end of Christmas break as the Montevideo School District moved to all distance learning on Tuesday.

Due to the sharp increase in confirmed  COVID-19 cases within the community, the Montevideo  School District has announced that, as of Tuesday, they have moved to a distance learning model for students in grades K-12. Confirmed cases have surged not only in the immediate area, but across the state and country as well.

The decision to move to distance learning was made before Thanksgiving. Dr. Luther Heller, Montevideo Schools Superintendent, said: “Last Tuesday we looked at the case numbers with Countryside Public Health and the Regional Support Team from the Minnesota Department of Health and got their take on the situation.”

Dr. Heller was hopeful that the school district could remain in a hybrid model, but the positive case numbers were too high. He said: “We looked at the local numbers  and who were considering distance learning. It became evident that we needed to move to distance learning.”

There has been a surge of cases in recent weeks throughout the state, and those numbers drove the decision to move to distance learning. “Last week there was only one county in Minnesota that was under 50 cases per 10,000 people, and that was Cook County. As of Monday, there were no counties in the state under 50 cases per 10,000,” said Dr. Heller.

The threshold for school districts to move to distance learning is 50 confirmed cases per 10,000 people, and  indeed, many counties in the state have far exceeded that number. “Almost every county in the state is above 100,” said Dr. Heller, “ and many of them, including us, are up in the 200 case range.”

Dr. Heller also noted that there has been a steady growth in the number of students in quarantine. “Recently, we have been seeing a very regular number of our students in quarantine,” he said. “We were not getting huge numbers of positive cases within our schools, but we have been regularly having 30-40 students from every building in quarantine.”

School district staff have also been affected by the pandemic. Dr. Heller said: “Members of our staff have also had to be quarantined. In some instances it was becoming difficult to adequately staff for the hybrid model. Anyone of our staff can teach from home when they are in quarantine, but if we are in a hybrid model that doesn’t help us if a teacher cannot be in the classroom.”

Given that the case numbers were so high, combined with the number of students and staff in quarantine, the decision was  made to go to distance learning in K-12. “Countryside Public Health and the MDH Regional Support Team were very supportive of this joint decision,” said Dr. Heller.

The Montevideo School District will remain in distance learning at least through the end of Christmas break. “During the last week of December, we’ll look at where the numbers are and make a decision at that point as to what we are going to do that first week of January,” Dr. Heller said.

The school district, Countryside Public Health, and the MDH Regional Support Team also consider how surrounding school districts are being affected by the pandemic. “We know that we can’t only look at the numbers within our district,” said Dr. Heller, “we also have to look at the numbers area wide, as well.”

Dr. Heller also mentioned that there was a lot of concern over what would happen after the Thanksgiving break. “We knew there was going to be a huge surge in cases after Thanksgiving because of the millions of people who decided to travel for the holiday,” he said.

According to Dr. Heller, quite a few schools in our area have opted to go to distance learning. “Some have gone to K-12 distance learning, while others have gone with distance learning for their secondary schools,” he said. “For example, Lac qui Parle is in distance learning for their junior and senior high schools, but their two elementary buildings in Appleton and Madison are hybrid.”

Other schools in our area that are currently in distance learning include: Lakeview, Dawson-Boyd, Yellow Medicine East, Minneota, and MACCRAY.

“At the state level,” said Dr. Heller, “a lot of schools that were hybrid last week have moved to distance learning, which will last through the Christmas break. In fact some of them, like Willmar and New London/Spicer, have announced that they will remain in distance learning through the 19th of January. Hutchinson is in distance learning through the end of January.”

The reason behind these schools’ decisions to remain in distance learning through the middle of January is to prepare for an expected surge in cases after the holiday break as people travel and get together for holiday celebrations.

On Monday, classes were not held in the Montevideo School District. Dr. Heller said: “Monday was a prep day for teachers as they needed time to convert their lesson plans from hybrid lesson plans to distance learning plans. It’s not a matter of just walking in and doing everything by distance learning; they have to re-tool and gear up for it.”

Most of the work and planning on how to do that took place over the summer. “Our teachers worked very hard on that, knowing that teaching models could change on short notice,” said Dr. Heller. “They put in a lot of time and effort in preparation for whatever could come along.”

Of course, switching between education models is not easy for staff or students. Dr. Heller said: “It is challenging to change. There is a lot more work that goes into teaching classes under those conditions than most people think.

“We still want the teachers making contact with their students, and they’ve been doing a good job of that. We also want them to make sure they are meeting the needs of their students and catching the ones that may be on the verge of slipping through the cracks. It’s a challenge!”

With the move to distance learning, all extracurricular activities are on hold. “Our  winter sports teams had recently begun practicing, but that has stopped,” Dr. Heller said. “The recent Executive Order from the governor stated that sports teams may resume practicing on Saturday, December 19. However, that is subject to change.”

One area of education that has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic is the ability of school districts to hire substitutes. Dr. Heller said: “We’ve been seeing staffing shortages for years, and the pandemic has made things worse. A lot of people are reluctant to come in and substitute  because a lot of our substitutes tend to be older, and that puts them at a greater risk. This is not unique to Montevideo; we’re hearing the same thing from superintendents all across the state.”

All in all, Dr. Heller is very proud of the Montevideo School District’s staff. He said: “We have a lot of staff members who are stepping up and doing an exceptional job; they are doing their best to meet the needs of our students and the community. They are working hard at being flexible, and a lot of credit is given to them!”

There is much uncertainty as to what learning model the school district will be in after Christmas break. “During that last full week of December, we’ll look at the numbers and decide if we’ll stay in distance learning or return to a hybrid model. However, I do not foresee a situation where we’d jump from distance learning to having everyone attend classes in-person,” said Dr. Heller. “It will be either distance learning or hybrid.”

Dr. Luther Heller spoke at length about the school district's decision to go to distance learning.