Two of the state's largest school districts have announced plans to shift middle and high school students to distance learning in response to the rising spread of COVID-19 in their schools and communities.
The Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school board voted Thursday night on the change for secondary students, which goes into effect Nov. 12. Friday morning, Osseo Area Schools made the same move, voting to begin distance learning for middle and high schools starting Nov. 9. Elementary students in both districts will remain in a hybrid learning model, attending in-person classes for part of the week and spending the other days in distance learning.
School leaders in both districts have been closely monitoring county and local virus data from the Minnesota Department of Health, and they made the decisions after reviewing new numbers released by the state Thursday. Speaking to school board members, Osseo Superintendent Cory McIntyre said public health officials have grown increasingly concerned about the spiking number of cases in cities in the district, including Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park and Plymouth.
Cases involving Osseo students and staff are also on the rise; since the school year began, the district has seen 124 positive cases, with 20% of them coming in the past week alone. Close to 1,500 students and staff have had to quarantine because they tested positive for the virus, showed symptoms, or have been in close contact with someone who tested positive. The district's absentee rate for teachers is 2½ times the usual level, McIntyre said.
"This really has an impact on our ability to continue to staff and operate our schools effectively," he said.
COVID-19 cases are also on the rise in Dakota County, prompting the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district to move to distance learning. District officials said they're tracking 49 positive student cases of the virus, and 664 students are in quarantine — about 2% of the district's overall enrollment. More than 70 teachers are in quarantine.
So far this year, the district has had 126 positive cases among students and staff.
Both districts' boards voted to continue with school sports and activities, despite moving to distance learning. In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, fall sports will finish the season but winter sports will have practices only, depending on how much the virus is spreading in the coming months.
The decisions capped a week in which several other metro districts announced changes to their plans for both classes and activities because of increasing COVID-19 rates — and revealed widespread confusion and variation in how those decisions are being made.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, announced it would move its middle and high schools to distance learning and shut down sports and other activities, citing state guidelines. A few days later, it reversed course on part of that decision, saying it would allow sports to continue.
Mounds View Public Schools told parents to prepare for a potential shift to distance learning, but on Thursday sent out another note that said the district was seeking further clarification from the state Department of Education about when it would have to make that move. The Centennial school district announced a shift to distance learning and told parents that it was unclear if sports could continue — and then clarified that they could, following Anoka-Hennepin's decision to carry on with athletics.
The state provides a guide for making decisions about moves between in-person, hybrid and distance learning that is rooted in county virus data released each week from the state Department of Health. But increasingly, districts have been giving more weight to considerations like local virus data from cities, the number of COVID-19 cases in schools and the number of people reporting flu-like symptoms in school buildings.
In an e-mail to school leaders this week, the Minnesota Department of Education attempted to clarify the decisionmaking process.
"This is what we are calling the 'scalpel approach,' " Deputy Commissioner Heather Mueller wrote in the message. "This approach allows school districts and charter schools within the same county to have different learning models."