WORTHINGTON ― A debate about whether to return to hybrid learning Jan. 4 dominated Tuesday's regular meeting of the Worthington Independent School District 518 Board of Education, and members eventually voted in favor of the decision.

Superintendent John Landgaard explained that the district's incident management team ― which includes health care professionals ― has recommended returning to the hybrid model used at the beginning of the school year, with 50% of students in class at Prairie Elementary and the Area Learning Center at 25% at the middle and high schools. The team also polled district staff and received opinions spanning the gamut of options.

Board members Adam Blume and Mike Harberts advocated for the middle and high schools also allowing 50% of students on site, while board member Linden Olson stated that it's too soon for secondary students to be back in school at all.

Nobles County's COVID-19 infection rate is twice the state average, Olson noted, also pointing out that state guidelines recommend not returning to hybrid learning unless the case rate is at 40 per 10,000 residents. The county is currently at about 70 per 10,000.

"We are an infection hotbed," he said.

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Blume and Harberts expressed concern about how distance learning is affecting students, saying that putting more kids back in school could help them raise their grades before the end of the quarter Jan. 22.

The first motion brought for a vote was to have students go back to a hybrid model at 50% in school across all buildings.

"I'm not going to support that," board member Lori Dudley said. "I'd rather wait the two weeks (until the end of quarter) to see what happens."

"I also don't support rushing into this," board member Steve Schnieder said.

Board chair Brad Shaffer noted the low availability of substitute teachers, saying he doesn't want to risk teachers getting sick and not having substitutes.

When it came time to vote, only Harberts and Blume were in favor, so the motion failed.

Next, the board voted on returning to the original hybrid plan, with middle and high school students in school only one day a week and 25% of students in school at a time. This motion also failed, with Dudley, Lorenz and Shaffer in favor and Harberts, Olson, Blume and Schnieder opposed.

"We should have had kids in school at the beginning of the year, and we didn't," Blume said, adding that he would like to try a 50% model first, and if the district has to drop back down from that, so be it.

"I don't agree with the risk and who's going to bear the brunt," Schnieder argued, noting that COVID is much more likely to affect district staff than students. "(Staff members) could die from this ― from our experimenting with their health.

"Everybody wants this, but at what price? At what cost?" he wanted to know.

"I just feel we need to try doing it, and we haven't," Blume countered.

Shaffer said he wanted to follow the advice of medical professionals.

"We've got to ask ourselves, 'Is something better than nothing?'" he said.

With both motions failed, the only other option was to have students stay in distance learning after the holiday break.

Harberts and Blume said they'd like to reconsider their votes, and the motion to return to the hybrid plan with 25% of middle and high schoolers in class was re-introduced.

This time, Dudley, Lorenz, Harberts, Blume and Shaffer all voted in favor ― though Blume and Harberts noted that they weren't happy about it ― while Schnieder and Olson were opposed, and the motion passed.

Boys' hockey cooperative sponsorship

The board considered a request for boys' hockey to form a cooperative sponsorship with Fulda, so a Fulda student could play on the Worthington team.

"I'm against any cooperative agreement that's not for the purpose of making sure our kids can participate," Shaffer said. "These other districts are poaching our kids, and then these kids want to come back and play on programs that we fund."

It would be different, he added, if the sponsorship was proposed because Worthington didn't have enough players to form a team.

Shaffer was the only board member to vote against the sponsorship.

Tax levy

The school board conducted its annual Truth in Taxation public hearing and afterward finalized the 2021 tax levy at $7,718,839.93. This is a decrease of about $1.3 million or about 14% from 2020. The 2021 budget is projected at a $3.5 million deficit, said Dave Skog, the district's business management director.

Also at the school board meeting:

  • Two Nobles Home Initiative requests were approved, one for Dan Krueger and one for V&O Properties.
  • The board approved actions that help staff plan for next year's budget.
  • 2020-2021 legislative priorities were approved.
  • Shaffer and Blume were assigned to the Community Education Building Oversight Committee.
  • Schnieder was assigned to the Intermediate School Oversight Committee.
  • The board approved a 2021-2024 contract for Landgaard, with Blume and Harberts opposed.
  • It was decided that for the coming season, there will be no spectators allowed at middle school sporting events.
  • Board members agreed to sign on to a resolution asking the Minnesota State High School League to make its fees more equitable across school districts.