Superintendent Gwen Carman says the district has to look at more specific numbers than those provided for Winona County at large. But other issues have been raised, such as whether the district communicates enough with area families about positive cases and whether the district is being fully transparent about its process.
Minnesota Department of Education guidelines regarding how schools should operate during the pandemic are based on the number of new infections per 10,000 people over a 14-day period.
School districts can have in-person learning for all students if the county’s infection rate is 0-9. The guidance gets more restrictive as the infection rate increases. If the infection rate is 50 or more, the guidelines suggest all students should be using distance learning.
The first day of school for Lewiston-Altura was Sept. 8. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, Winona County had an infection rate of 77.49 during the period from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5. The infection rate has since decreased. From Aug. 30 to Sept. 12, the infection rate for Winona County was 44.64.
Despite those high rates, the school district began its year by having elementary students learning in-person, and having secondary students in the hybrid model. In order to have that configuration, the school district should have had an infection rate less than 20, according to state guidelines.
That means the county’s infection rate was more than double the number it would have needed to be in order to implement the learning model the district began with.
When outlining the guidelines prior to the start of school, Gov. Tim Walz clarified that the infection-rate categories are not a strict requirement. Rather, he said they should be a starting point for school districts to build on.
Carman said there were more factors at play in the learning-model decision than just the overall county infection rate. She said they have been able to break the infection rate down to see how it affects the different areas of the county. Winona County had one of the highest infection rates in the state at the beginning of September. However, the Lewiston-Altura School District represents only 3% of those positive cases, she said Wednesday.
“Besides the county data, we need to consider many other factors in terms of making those learning model decisions,” she said.
A staff member with the district, who requested to remain anonymous, said one of staff’s main concerns is the lack of communication between the district and area families about the positive cases. According to Carman, the district currently only communicates with parents about positive cases if they are the guardian of the child who tested positive or the guardian of a child who was considered a “close contact.”
Carman said the situation would be different if there were a larger number of positive cases rather than one or two isolated instances. So far, there has been one student and one staff member who tested positive for COVID.
Matthew Wilmes, is the Education Minnesota representative for Lewiston-Altura and represents the district’s teachers. He said he’s fine with the learning model the district has implemented as long as the district communicates the reasoning behind it. He said the administration needs to be more transparent with staff about the decision-making processes.
“I am fine staying with the model we’re in if we have the data to back it up,” Wilmes said. “The teachers here are not complaining; they’re simply seeking answers.”