DULUTH – The Duluth school board on Thursday approved a plan to start the year with a hybrid learning model for all grade levels, likely meaning that each week secondary students will physically attend classes one day while elementary students get two days of in-person instruction.

The plan differs from what Superintendent John Magas had presented to the board Tuesday, when the district leader recommended that elementary students return to the classroom full-time.

“We needed to err on the side of safety,” said Magas, explaining that his new recommendation Thursday was driven by staff members’ health concerns and potential challenges keeping students socially distant in some of the more crowded elementary schools.

After a four-hour meeting, the board voted 6-1 to sign off on the plan. Member Sally Trnka cast the lone no vote, citing recent COVID-19 outbreaks in other states where students have already gone back to school.

“I’m really struggling with getting behind putting anybody in harm’s way,” Trnka said.

The state’s guidelines, which are based on a county’s number of COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents, recommend that Duluth allow all students back in their classrooms five days a week.

But as of Thursday, St. Louis County was adding COVID-19 cases faster than any other Minnesota county, and about three-fourths of the county’s cases came from Duluth — stats that prompted board members to approve a more conservative plan for the fall.

“Duluth is different. Duluth is more urban. Duluth also relies on a lot of tourism,” Magas said. Some Minnesota districts, such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, have already announced plans to start their school years remotely, while others intend to resume regular in-person classes.

The district is still figuring out what an average day of hybrid learning will look like for teachers, but principals attending the board’s virtual meeting stressed the value they placed on face-to-face time with students.

“It’s very different building a relationship in person than it is over a computer,” said Danette Seboe, principal of Duluth East High School.

District officials also said they’ve invested in Seesaw and Canvas, digital learning platforms that they say will make it much easier for teachers to engage with students remotely. Magas said the district has also purchased about 1,500 devices for students who don’t have their own and plans to make sure families have proper internet access.

Parents can also choose distance learning and keep their children at home. Duluth is asking families to fill out a survey telling the district how their student plans to learn in the fall.

Duluth will release more details about returning to school in the coming weeks, and Magas added that the district could shift learning models throughout the school year.

All students will learn remotely during the first two weeks of school to practice digital classroom tools and go over safety protocols.