Litchfield High School entrance

Litchfield High School

All Litchfield Public Schools students will return to full-time in-person learning beginning Feb. 16.

That decision came during the Litchfield School Board meeting Tuesday as members responded to a presentation from the district’s COVID-19 coordinator, Laurie Garland, and other information, including statements made during public comment period by a former board member.

“I’m really glad that we’re at the point of discussing what the options are of getting kids back (in school),” board member Alex Carlson said, adding that “tensions are growing” among parents, educators and students for a return to in-person learning.

“We have a golden opportunity to get these kids back in school, and the time is now,” board Chairman Darrin Anderson said. “I’m excited.”

Meeker County’s COVID-19 infection rate — a major factor in determining the education model the district would follow — has seen a mostly steady decline since late November. The reporting period of Nov. 15-28 saw an infection rate of 229.21, according to a memo from Superintendent Beckie Simenson. The most recent published reporting period, Jan. 3-16, had a rate of 39.

And, board member Greg Mathews said, that rate has fallen even further, to just 22.

“I think all of you here know, nobody was more supportive of taking our kids out” of school when infection rate skyrocketed, Mathews said. “Since then, I think we’ve learned a lot. I believe in science and I believe in numbers. The numbers have come down dramatically. I strongly support bringing all of our kids back, and as soon as possible. I wouldn’t have said that a month ago; I’m saying it now.”

Currently, high school and middle school students in the district have been in a hybrid learning model, with about half of them attending class in-person on Mondays and Tuesday, and the other half attending Thursdays and Fridays, with a Wednesday “flex” day that allows for parent-student catch-up sessions as needed. Lake Ripley Elementary School students have been in-person since early January.

While confirming the Feb. 16 return-to-school date for high school and middle school students, the board also approved a teacher prep schedule after reviewing results of an online survey that asked parents, teachers and students to choose their favorite among three options that included one day off every other week, an early release one day every week, or a school day shortened by 30 minutes every day.

The board approved the full day of teacher prep every other week for the rest of the year.

The prep day was part of a Gov. Tim Walz executive order aimed at giving teachers statewide more flexibility to prepare lesson plans during difficult pandemic circumstances.

The one day every other week plan was favored by parents and teachers who responded to an online survey while it was the least favorite of the three options among students, though in close voting that saw just 16 votes separate the third choice (full-day every other week) from the top (early release).

The board did not decide when the prep day would fall, though Carlson suggested either Monday or Friday would be least disruptive to family schedules.

Former board members Dave Huhner and Chase Groskreutz, both of whom left the board at the end of last year, attended Monday’s meeting, with Huhner requesting to speak.

Saying he spoke for the parents who have been pushing to get students back in school for quite some time, Huhner told the board it was “way past time” to make it happen. He said board members should talk to Activities Director Justin Brown about the number of students struggling with distance and hybrid learning.

“Kids need to be in school,” said Huhner, who while a board member supported going against executive orders and returning students to the classroom. He also questioned the value of mask-wearing, another topic he addressed Monday, saying “wherever you stand on the mask debate,” anyone who watched Sunday’s Super Bowl and the maskless crowds on the field after that game.

While children are suffering during distance learning, Huhner said, Super Bowl MVP “Tom Brady is running around living his dream.”