Duluth schools recommend combination of in-person and distance learning

Gov. Tim Walz walks to a lectern
Gov. Tim Walz walks to a lectern before taking part in a news conference last week to announce the learning plan for Minnesota schools for the upcoming academic year.
Aaron Lavinsky | Star Tribune via AP

In a presentation to the school board Tuesday night, Duluth Superintendent John Magas recommended that students in K-5 elementary schools start the school year in the classroom, with students in middle and high schools beginning the year under a hybrid model: in class one day a week, virtual learning four days a week. 

According to state guidelines released last week, currently the Duluth district could choose to begin the year with all students in class. The two-week COVID-19 infection rate in St. Louis County is currently below the threshold that would allow for in-class instruction. 

But Magas said the infection rate in the Duluth area is higher than the rest of the county. With a growing number of coronavirus cases in the region, he said he wouldn’t be comfortable starting the school year with all students attending school in person. 

"I think we’re too close to the point where we’re going to cross into a need for elementary and middle school, high school hybrid,” Magas said. “We need to exercise caution, and think about the safety of our students, and safety of our staff."

A recent survey of district families found that a majority preferred some kind of in-person learning. Nearly two-thirds said they would send their children to school under a hybrid or in-class model. Seven percent said they would not. Thirty percent were undecided. 

But Magas, and several school board members, said a significant number of teachers have expressed concerns about returning to the classroom. 

"I know the safety factors are a concern too, and I know there's a strong desire among our teachers and staff to take a more conservative approach,” he said. 

At least one school board member, Paul Sandholm, said he preferred going that route. 

“I just think we should look, maybe start at a safer position, and then move in the other direction,” Sandholm said, adding that infection rates are much higher now than when schools shut down in the spring in the early stages of the pandemic. 

If the school board opted to take a more conservative approach, Magas said he didn’t think the district had the space to offer a hybrid model at both elementary and secondary schools, because under that scenario, schools would have to devote some of their classrooms to providing child care to essential workers.

Families also have the option to choose all distance learning. 

The school board meets again Thursday to consider the proposal. 

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