The first day back at school will have all of Westonka’s primary and middle school students in face masks, and the district is hoping the same will be said of its high school students.

Westonka Schools announced the new policy Aug. 30 and cited the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the area as well as younger students’ ineligibility for the vaccine as reasons for its decision.

All students, staff and visitors at Shirley Hills and Hilltop primary schools and at Grandview Middle School will be required to wear a face mask while inside school buildings beginning Sept. 7. That policy will be in effect until at least Oct. 1.

The district is also continuing to “strongly recommend” that face coverings be worn by all those at Mound Westonka High School and by those in the district’s Transition Plus program. Additional to this recommendation, the district announced that it may instate a universal mask policy for the higher grade levels should 5 percent or more of those at MWHS be absent with COVID-19 or COVID-like symptoms on any given day.

Face coverings will continue to be worn on school transportation services, as still mandated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Based on current local conditions, we have determined that additional strategies are needed to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on school operations and keep our students in school five days a week,” according to the Aug. 30 announcement, signed by superintendent Kevin Borg and Westonka school board chair David Botts. “Helping our youngest learners—the majority of whom do not yet have access to vaccination—have consistent learning experiences with as few disruptions as possible is the main reason for this change.”

Westonka had previously only recommended, not required, the use of face masks for its students and staff, a decision that led to administration receiving numerous phone calls and emails, both in support of a mask mandate and in opposition to it.

CURRENT SITUATION

The district noted a “significant shift in the trajectory of the virus in the Westonka area.”

Localized data on COVID-19 have shown a strong upward trend in the number of cases reported since mid-July, when just 14.7 cases per 100,000 population had been reported in the area. By Aug. 19, when area recorded its only drop in four weeks, that rate had risen to 155.9. As of Aug. 26, the most recent data available, that rate had risen once more, to 212.6 cases per 100,000—a 36 percent increase in one week and enough to place Westonka in a state of “highest transmission” per threshholds set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

As a primary indicator, the CDC considers a 14-day case rate of more than 200 per 100,000 population as being at highest risk for spread of COVID-19. A secondary indicator, percent change in the case rate over the previous seven days, also positions Westonka in the highest risk category. The CDC deems a 10 percent or greater change to be high transmission, a figure well below that 36 percent change that Westonka recorded end of August.

Last school year, Minnesota Department of Health had advised school districts with case rates similar to that now being reported in the Westonka area to follow a purely hybrid model of education for all grade levels. Districts are not tied to any such recommendations this year and instead were given local control over their pandemic response, including making decisions around in-person and online learning options and whether to instate a masking mandate.

The Westonka school board had approved in August a base learning plan to open for fully in-person education for all students this fall. Westonka is also offering online courses through a third party as an option to any students who wish to pursue it.

According to the district’s announcement, “Programming has gone really well this summer,” and it wasn’t until mid- to late August in its Adventure Club program that “we started to see an increase in positive cases of COVID-19, as well as symptomatic individuals.”

The district also noted that it didn’t yet have a handle on how indoor school programming could be affected by the delta variant and that “for this reason, the potential for an outbreak is a concern.”

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