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'Scalpel approach' gives MN schools chance to keep playing sports

County infection rates are no longer the only thing that matters.

Minnesota schools have advanced in the Safe Learning Plan to what is dubbed the "scalpel"approach," which gives individual schools and districts more flexibility in determining which learning model most accurately represents the level of COVID-19 transmission in the community rather than a one-size-fits-all approach. 

According to Health Mueller, deputy commissioner of the Department of Education, the scalpel approach "allows school districts and charter schools within the same county to have different learning models." 

"For example: a county may have four school districts within its boundaries which would give them all the same county base data; however, when each of the school districts review their community data and school data, their viral spread might be vastly different. As a result, some of the districts in that county may need to move to distance learning while others can remain in hybrid. Beyond this, some districts may have local factors or mitigation strategies that allow or prohibit students from accessing learning in person. This scalpel approach is why some school districts that have high county-level case data are still operating in an in-person or hybrid learning model."

The first step in Minnesota's Safe Learning Plan mandated that districts employ one of the three learning models – distance, hybrid or in person – based on the county infection rates that are updated bi-weekly by the state health department. Districts were allowed to be more restrictive, but not less. The scalpel approach provides flexibility with a micro-view of COVID-19 in specific communities. 

The scalpel approach also impacts athletics and activities. Previously, if county-level infection rates called for distance learning, all schools within the county would be required to discontinue activities and athletics for at least two weeks, or until there is evidence that the spread is under control. 

It's why Anoka-Hennepin can continue with activities, athletics

Such a scenario entered the spotlight this week when the Anoka-Hennepin school board voted to continue activities and athletics despite the district moving to distance learning for middle and high school students. 

  • Anoka County infection rate: 33.16 cases per 10,000 residents
  • Hennepin County infection rate: 25.25 cases per 10,000 residents

Anoka County's infection rate, based on the Safe Learning Plan, calls for distance learning for middle and high school students, and a hybrid model for elementary grades. Hennepin County's infection rate falls into the hybrid model for all grades. 

The Anoka-Hennepin District website clearly states that the decision to cancel extracurriculars while students are in distance learning is "based on state guidance and is not a School Board decision." However, Jim Skelly, the district's director of communications, tells Bring Me The News that there are no current plans to overrule the board's decision. 

"The Anoka-Hennepin School Board action directed that activities continue until further clarity can be provided. It also directed the superintendent to determine the data points that are being used for activities," Skelly wrote in an email. 

The reason Anoka-Hennepin can skirt around the state guidance is specifically tied to the scalpel approach Mueller referenced in her letter. 

"Taking into account their local building-level data, we do not believe that Anoka-Hennepin’s data is yet reflecting that they had to move to distance learning due to prevalence of COVID in their community," a spokesperson from the Department of Education said Wednesday. 

"We have always been supportive of schools being more conservative with their learning models so we support Superintendent Law’s decision. Schools who choose to be more conservative than the data indicates [they] could continue offering activities."

Furthermore, Anoka-Hennepin is reviewing its "systems and data points" to "manage and ensure the health and safety of students and staff," Skelly added. 

Anoka-Hennepin is the largest school district in the state and is home to Andover, Anoka, Blaine, Champlin Park and Coon Rapids high schools. 

"If you are in-person, hybrid, or more restrictive distance learning by choice then your students can participate in activities and athletics," Mueller wrote. "If you are required to be in distance learning then your students cannot participate in activities and athletics."

School districts and charter schools must follow the Safe Learning Plan guidelines, as stated by Gov. Tim Walz's executive order that was issued July 30. 

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