MOORHEAD — Officials with Moorhead Area Public Schools are letting district families know that because of increases in the number of staff and students testing positive for the coronavirus, the district is shifting students in pre-Kindergarten through eighth grade to distance learning beginning Monday, Nov. 30.

"Shifting to a distance learning model is not ideal nor desirable, but necessary at this time," the district said in a message to families Friday morning, Nov. 13.

The note added: "We hope to be able to stay in our current learning model until November 30, but please realize that it may be necessary to transition individual classrooms or schools earlier in response to staffing issues or significant spread. If that is necessary, impacted staff, students and families will be notified with details."

Moorhead public school students in grades 9-12 have been in distance learning since September 28.

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The latest decision regarding younger students was made based on staffing concerns caused by increasing absences due to COVID-19 quarantine among staff and students as well as rising Clay county and Cass county case counts and Minnesota Department of Education recommendations, school officials said.

School officials said Friday that Moorhead Area Public Schools currently has 126 staff members and 403 students absent for pandemic-related reasons, which they said is up significantly over the past two week.

"From the beginning of the pandemic, our primary goal has been to provide the best possible learning experience for our students while ensuring student and staff safety. While we know distance learning is not ideal or desirable, we are facing an unsustainable operating environment that could affect the excellence and equity of our students’ education," Superintendent Brandon Lunak said.

"We are committed to helping each student to thrive and feel a distance-learning model will best accomplish student success and staff and student safety in current conditions," he added.

The district plans to return to hybrid learning on Jan. 4 if conditions allow.

The district has been preparing for a possible move to distance learning since the start of the school year and students in grades 1-12 will have district-provided Chromebooks that will be used at home during the duration of distance learning.

Moorhead schools will continue providing free meals for all students and adults. School-aged childcare for Tier 1 critical care workers will also be provided during distance learning, the school district said.