DULUTH – Superintendent John Magas on Monday recommended starting the academic year with distance learning for middle and high school students, a switch from the previously discussed hybrid plan that would have put them in the classroom one day each week.

The new proposal is the third and most cautious approach discussed by district leaders this month. Under the plan, elementary schools would still have students attend in-person two days each week.

Magas said the decision was fueled in part by the state's requirement that schools provide child care for emergency workers. According to a survey of district families this month, the Duluth district is preparing to take in more than 1,000 children of parents whose jobs are considered essential under Gov. Tim Walz's emergency order.

"We don't have the space," said Magas, who added that staffing is also a challenge.

The superintendent, who consulted with an advisory board consisting of teachers, parents and other stakeholders, said he also took into account St. Louis County's steady stream of new COVID-19 cases in August, among the highest rates in Minnesota. County data show 15% of those currently infected are between the ages of 15 and 18.

The state's guidelines, which are based on a county's number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, suggest that Duluth should have elementary students return to the classroom full-time while secondary students follow a hybrid learning model. However, Magas has repeatedly suggested that the district should base its decision on data for Duluth, where almost three-fourth's of the sprawling county's cases are located.

The district expects to stick to its latest plan for at least the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year.

Magas said distance learning will look "significantly different" than it did in the spring, noting that Duluth has invested in digital learning platforms and devices for students who need them. The district is also exploring ways to offer in-person support to secondary students struggling with learning from afar.