The Menahga School Board met in a special meeting July 31 to discuss reopening in the fall.
“I think it’s understood that there’s a lot that is not in concrete at this point,” said board chair Andrea Haverinen.
Superintendent Kevin Wellen said there would be no decision making on a motion, but the meeting was an opportunity to bring the board up to speed with regard to what they could or could not do, following Gov. Tim Walz’s order the previous day.
Wellen noted that, like other school districts, Menahga ordered personal protective equipment, then Walz announced July 30 the state would provide one cloth mask and three disposable masks for every employee and one cloth mask for every student.
The district ordered no-contact thermometers, along with foggers that disinfect classrooms or buses within a matter of minutes, Wellen said.
“We’ve got wipes. We’ve got multiple different masks. We have hand sanitizers by the gallon for every classroom and then some,” he added. “Just so you know we are prepared for whatever we need to deal with.”
As for room capacity, Wellen said the bulk of classrooms should be able to accommodate students while social distancing.
Staff will be surveyed about their comfort level returning to school and if they have any underlying conditions. Similarly, Wellen said a survey of families and students will be conducted.
Based on Walz’s model, Wellen said, it looks like K-12 Menahga students in Menahga can have “in-person learning so that would mean that as long as families and students are comfortable, we can have them here,” while accommodating those who have underlying conditions or don’t wish to attend in person.
The in-person learning standard is 9 or fewer COVID-19 cases per 10,000 people over a two-week period. Hubbard and Wadena counties have 4.4 and 3.4 cases, respectively, Wellen said, while Becker County sits at 13.9. The majority of Menahga students reside in either Hubbard or Wadena counties.
“This whole in-person learning hinges on not having a spike in our communities,” Wellen said, “so the best chance of not having a spread of COVID is wearing a mask.”
Wellen expressed frustration with receiving two-week-old COVID-19 data from the state. “We need to have it current to make an important decision,” he said.
As for transportation, “I’m going to ask the board to ask the community to transport kids as much as you can because the reality is, we can’t,” Wellen continued.
At 50 percent capacity, half the kids won’t have a seat on the bus and “because of our geography, I don’t know that we can do two routes,” he explained, noting that masks are required on the bus.
“I know we have a concern with parents being frustrated with the idea of wearing masks. If it’s a condition you must wear a mask to ride the bus, I believe there will be a whole lot of parents and students who say ‘I’ll find a way there,’” Wellen said.
Additional crossing guards could be stationed so students within one mile of the school could safely walk instead of ride a bus, he noted.
Bus drivers will wear face shields.
Elementary Principal Jeannie Mayer said, with in-person learning, “really the only change for kids will be masks because we’ll do the backside, the extra cleaning. If we go hybrid, then we have to add in the social distancing and such. … We want to provide the best education that we can for kids, and if that’s what it takes, we really just want kids back in the building.”
Teachers want to return teaching, Mayer said, “but the only way we can do that is with masks.”
Wellen said he’s informed the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) commissioner that the district could lose 30 percent or more of students if the district cannot accommodate their families’ wishes to unmask. “In our district, that’s $3 million,” he said, and cutting payroll is not an option. “I’m taking every opportunity to make sure (the state is) aware of the burden they’re putting on us.”
The nearly 200-page state plan requires masks to be worn in school buildings, Mayer noted, and the MDE can revoke in-person learning if the district does not comply.
Wellen said principals are discussing potential student consequences for not wearing a mask.
The district is capable of doing temperature checks, he said, but parents will be asked to check their children before sending them to school.
Meals are a work in progress, he said.
“Band and choir have become a great concern with educators,” said Wellen. “We don’t have a solution right now, except possibly doing it in a bigger space, outside or wearing face shields.”
Physical education classes will involve non-contact activities.
For the distance learning/hybrid model, Wellen said, “We are having a very intentional conversation about minimizing the number of platforms that teachers use, keeping it to one, maybe two platforms per building. … No matter what we do, we’ll have training for parents.”
The school board also approved its 10-year, long-term facilities maintenance (LTFM) plan. Wellen pointed out that expenditures were listed as $1,361,440 for 2020 and $444,582 for 2021, but then drop off to $125,000 annually.
“That’s because we have that $2 million bond that we’re wrapping up steadily. We spent most of it last year. We’re spending the rest this year,” he said. “Those are expenses for our current roof system, replacing our handling units, electrical for some lighting. Beyond that, you’ll see the $125,000 doesn’t go far.”
Wellen said there will be enough money for “decent-sized projects” without dipping into the district’s general fund, “unless something dramatic came up.”
The LTFM plan is reviewed annually by the board.