ABOVE, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance through masks and face coverings, prior to the August l7 school board meeting, Pelican Rapids administrators and board members. The board made what could arguably be the most difficult decision in the history of the district on Monday: How to teach kids in the face of a global COVID-19 pandemic.

PHOTO BY
LOUIS HOGLUND

Learning models cautiously approved by school board­–with one ‘no’ vote 

By Louis Hoglund

Grade school kids will be taught in the classroom, while Pelican Rapids High School students will attend school part of the time—and learn at home part-time. 

In one of the most difficult decisions imaginable, the Pelican Rapids School Board approved COVID-19 pandemic learning plans that will impact daily life for nearly 850 students and their families. 

Teaching staff will also tackle the complex task of teaching both in the classroom, and online to stay at home kids. About 24 percent of Pelican families have chosen “distance learning” for their kids, meaning they will keep the kids at home—with teaching performed by online technology. 

More than 11 percent of the students and their families will need assistance with online connections to their homes. These arrangements will be made over the next two weeks.

The decision by the school board wasn’t unanimous.

Casting the lone “no” vote was board member Greg Larson. Though he didn’t specifically voice it, Larson appeared to favor “distance learning” for the elementary building. 

“…We’re putting many young people and staff in close quarters in a time of a disease that has only been known to us for less than a year,” said Larson. 

Five and six-year-old kids, wearing masks for upwards of seven hours a day was something Larson said he had a hard time “wrapping my head around.” 

The recommendation for in-class learning in the elementary school follows a general view by educators that face to face learning is crucial, particularly in the early years, noted interim Superintendent Jerry Ness. 

“Mental health” is an important factor, said board member Brenda Olson. And being in the classroom, especially for the youngest students, has “benefits…that outweigh the dangers of COVID.” 

Though she voted in favor of the two models recommended by the administration, board member Brittany Dokken expressed concerns about impacts on business and the broader community. Just one confirmed case can have a domino effect throughout the community, with quarantined families unable to work, and children pulled out of school, noted Dokken. 

Still, the board was tasked with “making the best decision possible…knowing that not everybody will be happy,” said board member Anne Peterson. 

In general, school officials “want student contact,” said High School Principal and acting administrator Brian Korf. He further emphasized that “mental health is a big concern for staff and students.” 

Interim Superintendent Ness agreed that “We want kids in front of us as much as possible, but we also want to be safe.” 

Administrators based the recommendations on a number of factors. A key criterion is the number of confirmed COVID cases in the county and area. Otter Tail County has declined from about 8 cases per 10,000 population in July, down to about 6, reported Korf. Based on state guidelines, schools can be completely open for in-person learning if the 14-day case per 10,000 population is nine or below.

The school’s COVID responses team has been working closely with state departments, Otter Tail County Health, and the Fergus Falls-headquartered Lakes Country Service Cooperative in formulating plans, said Ness. The Co-op will also have an emergency response team that can be activated on short notice to assist schools in its service area. 

If there is a spike of COVID cases in the county, and in the immediate Pelican area, the emergency mechanisms can kick in almost immediately, said Ness. An emergency meeting can be called on a Saturday morning, for example, and changes can be implemented for the following school week.

“There will be lots of heads together,” said Ness. “Mr. Korf and I would not be comfortable making decisions without input from the public authorities.”

Other details of the Pelican school learning plan decision, outlined by acting administrator Korf : 

• Each campus, the elementary school and the high school, will have a health aid on site every day.

• Cameras will take student temperatures as they walk through the door. Any student showing a temperature of 100 degrees or higher, will be isolated in a designated area for further examination. Temperatures will also be recorded at lunch. 

• Most elementary grades will eat lunch and breakfast in their classrooms—to minimize traffic in the hallways. 

• Drinking fountains for bottle refill only (students should bring water bottle with their name on it).

• Students will carry books and materials in their backpacks throughout the day, entering their lockers to start and end the day. This will limit traffic and hallway encounters.

• Hallways will be based on a “one way street” construction, to minimize passing while moving from one room to the next. This prompted one brief moment of humor at the Aug. 17 meeting, when the question was posed about also implementing “passing zones” and “speed bumps.”

HYBRID LEARNING: Pelican Rapids High School will be taught partly on-site, in the classroom; and partly through internet technology. 

Students from each grade split into 2 groups (families grouped together)

Group A: In-person learning on Tuesdays & Thursdays Distance learning on Wednesdays & Fridays

Group B: In-person learning on Wednesdays & Fridays Distance learning on Tuesdays & Thursdays

IN-PERSON LEARNING: Pelican’s Viking Elementary School will open its classrooms for on-site teaching when school starts Sept. 8.

• Students return to the school buildings following the most current state health and safety guidelines (including face coverings by all people in building).

• School runs on normal schedule.

DISTANCE LEARNING: More than 20 percent of Pelican’s student body, (more than 100 kids) have requested to stay home, and will be taught “long distance.” 

• All learning and academic work is done from home.

• Daily classes are virtual (can be viewed live or recorded).

• This model of learning is an available option at all times for families.