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St. James school board passes motion for a return to hybrid and in-person learning

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

On Monday night, the St. James school board passed a motion following a presentation from Superintendent Dr. Steve Heil to accept a plan to return to hybrid and in-person learning starting on January 18 if COVID-19 numbers continue to be down in the county.

Heil also met with the district advisory council prior to the school board meeting to get a consensus on a plan in place.

The agreed plan is to start VPK and ESCE, as well as kindergarten through second grades students be in-person starting on January 18. Students in grades 6-12 will start hybrid learning on January 18 as well.

Due to new guidelines from the state of Minnesota, elementary students must use a "rolling start," where only three grades can begin in-person at once, and other grades can start in-person learning after two extra weeks of distance learning. The 14-day case rate will also no longer apply to elementary school students.

St. James students in grades 3-5 will return to in-person learning on February 1. Families with older siblings would also be given the option to stay at home until February 1.

Families will also be given the option to keep kids home and in distance learning.

"We've got attendance codes in place for parents to distance learning to choose if they want," said Gary Anderson during the district advisory council meeting. "I just know there's a lot of kids who would like to get back in session."

Principal Karla Beck anticipated around 400 students being back at the middle school high school.

Elementary and ESCE students have been in distance learning since December 7. Middle school and high school students have been in distance learning since November 30.

In the weeks prior to moving to distance learning, COVID-19 cases had skyrocketed throughout Watonwan County. In the weeks from November 22 through December 5, the county's case rate rose to 154.897. Rates have fallen dramatically, from 114.806 (12/6-12/18) to 9.11 (12/27-1/8).

"Right now, we can see that the numbers are extremely good for our county, they're extremely good for our city and our zip code," Heil told the district advisory council.

From December 22 through Monday, a total of 16 cases had been reported.

"I talked with Watonwan County Health and they said that right now, within our county, approximately one of every ten people have had COVID-19 so as we look to the future they don't necessarily see the spikes going as high for our zip code data simply because one out of every ten people has had COVID-19 here in the county," Heil told the school board.

St. James schools started the year on September 8 in hybrid learning. Middle school and high school students were then moved to distance learning in late September through October 26.

The state also put guidelines in place to implement on-site testing and staff training. At Northside, Principal Liam Dawson and nurse Terri Baumgartner received testing. At the middle school high school, Beck, Greg Burman, and Nurse Danelle Ericksen-Bentley had training. Heil and Sue Harris were trained for the Armstrong School. Testing will start on January 14 and be administered every other week.

The district ordered 80% of staff vaccines.

The district is letting staff use their professional judgment to wear face shields along with face masks.

Practice for athletics started on Monday, and games will start on January 14. The district has ordered five more free-standing sanitizing stations in various locations, including one each at Northside and Armstrong. While no official guidance has been named about spectators, the district anticipates that two family members per player will be permitted to games.

Athletes in wrestling and gymnastics do not have to wear masks while competing.

Other school extracurricular activities—including those that don't fall under the Minnesota State High School League— are also able to begin meeting.  

Prior to the passing of the motion of the school board meeting, Steve Chapin and Tim Brey shared concerns about the senior class and typical senior activities such as homecoming and graduation.

"Last year, they lost three to four months of their junior year, and they've lost all of this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Brey. "I don't know if there's an end in sight."

"This is a challenging time for everybody and we get that, but this senior class is really being put in a tough place," said Chapin.

Brey and Chapin urged the board and administration to start making plans with the senior advisory group about senior activities.

"Our hope, that we, together, can put together a solid plan," said Chapin. "The parents are willing to help and the students are willing to work—whatever it takes. And now we just need everyone together to make sure we pay attention to these kids."

Following Chapin and Brey, new board member Jason Monnens was sworn in. Richard Spitzner was named chairperson of the board, and Michelle Mohlenbrock was named vice-chairperson. Mike Tongsager was named the clerk, and Scott Runge was named treasurer.

The school board will hold its regular meeting next Monday.

Other items:

- Committee assignments

- Official Publication: St. James Plaindealer

- School attorney: Steve Sunde

- Official depositories: First National Bank, Pioneer Bank, MN School District Liquid Asset Fund, Wells Fargo Bank

- Wire transfer authority for the school district’s operations are designated to Courtney Brey, Steven Heil, and Tracy Gronewold

- Establish regular meeting dates, time, and venue

- School Board member stipends: $50 for each meeting ($100 for meetings in excess of 4 hours), $250 a year for board chair, $250 for clerk

- Mileage reimbursements for travel- recommend to is IRS guidelines: 56 cents per mile

- Meal allowance: breakfast: $10.00, lunch $15.00, dinner $26.00, max per day $50.00