A rural school district southwest of the Twin Cities has become the first to test the limits of the state’s guidelines for school reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The board of Sibley East Public Schools voted last month to shift from hybrid to in-person instruction for all students — rejecting the recommendations of the district’s superintendent, state education officials and the state’s virus-count metrics for reopening as the number of local cases rose. Board members said they were following the wishes of a majority of parents, who are struggling to balance work with their children’s complicated schedules, and trying to help students who can’t log on in areas with spotty broadband connections.

But the move was short lived. Under pressure from the state Department of Education and advice of the district’s attorney, who warned that defying the state could prompt a legal battle, lost funding and fines or jail time for school board members, the board held an emergency session and reversed its vote. Sibley East’s reopening lasted exactly one week.

Superintendent Jim Amsden said the saga — like everything about operating schools in the pandemic — has been “extraordinarily stressful” for everyone involved.

“Our families are under a great deal of strain, our school staffs are under a great deal of strain, and it’s really in every area,” he said. “Our board is under a great deal of strain, because they want to do right by the families and our students.”

Under orders from Gov. Tim Walz and guidelines from the state education and health departments, Minnesota schools are granted some flexibility in their reopening decisions. Decisions about fully reopening, distance learning or combining the two for hybrid instruction are based on a number of factors. Chief among them: the rate of local COVID-19 cases per 10,000 residents over a two-week period.

Department of Education officials have stressed that the case counts don’t necessarily restrict a district or charter school to one model or another; districts that span multiple counties might require a more complicated calculation, as would a district in a county where the virus has primarily spread in a limited area. The department has teams spread out across the state assigned to help superintendents and charter school leaders sort out the public health data and other factors and offer guidance about when to open or close schools.

Deputy Education Commissioner Heather Mueller said state officials understand the pressure that school leaders and parents and students are under, and are working to consider each district and situation individually. But the paramount goal is making sure schools are meeting health guidelines and keeping communities safe.

The state is tracking virus cases in schools and plans to post new data Friday showing case counts in school buildings across the state.

Tough decisions

Amsden and Sibley East School Board Chairman Brian Brandt said many people in the community — and on the school board — expected there was enough flexibility to allow the district to make its own call. As the school year began, the number of virus cases was rising, in part because of an outbreak tied to a nearby food-processing plant, but board members believed the numbers weren’t far off from those in other districts where schools were open.

Plus, pressure from the community was intensifying. Parents, many of whom commute more than an hour to jobs in the Twin Cities or work in factory jobs or in other positions where working from home isn’t an option, were struggling to balance their schedules with a hybrid school plan. Some areas of the district, which covers the cities of Arlington, Gaylord and Green Isle, lack the broadband connections needed for distance learning.

“It’s hard,” said Brandt, who voted to reopen both times. “It’s hard for a small, rural district to do these things.”

But until the school board voted — and Superintendent Amsden got a phone call from Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker — it remained unclear whether the district could effectively make that case to the state.

Kirk Schneidawind, executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association, said the uncertainty isn’t unique to Sibley East. The pandemic has thrust local school leaders and elected school board members into unfamiliar territory, making complex decisions about public health and running into new limits enforced by the state.

“There is some confusion on where does the buck stop,” he said. “And that used to be, in normal circumstances, with the board.”

Amsden said his district didn’t reach the point where the Department of Education had to issue a formal order to shift back to hybrid learning. That might have happened if the board’s emergency vote had again defied the state’s directions.

“Did they directly threaten us and say, ‘If you don’t do this, we will? No,’ ” he said. “But they noted that we need to be in compliance with the Minnesota Department of Health recommendations.”

Spokeswoman Wendy Hatch said the Department of Education was “not in a position to comment” about the potential legal consequences for a district that defies an order from the commissioner. She said the commissioner does have the ability to shut down a school building if that situation arose.

Hatch said considerations of public health should be school leaders’ primary concern as they make their decisions.

“The consequence is the spread of the virus, the health and safety of our students, and teachers, our families and our communities,” she said.