Effects of the COVID-19 Omicron variant are being felt pretty much everywhere across the state and nation - and lately, in the Waconia school district.

With its school superintendent and board chair nursing COVID-19 infections, the ISD 110 school board met virtually Monday night to discuss the latest impacts and mitigation strategies.

Waconia schools had 119 reported student cases in the first week of school following the holiday break and 19 staff cases. Totals since last August, as of last week’s report, are 520 student cases and 90 staff.

“We expected to see our COVID numbers increase due to the holiday break and lack of reporting over break, but the increase is higher than expected. This is the case especially at the high school where we have about 4.5 percent reporting positive COVID cases,” superintendent Pat Devine wrote last Friday in a report to families. “As the COVID variant Omicron attacks our community, it’s proving to be very contagious… From what we hear from states that have experienced the Omicron virus, it moves fast and is aggressive, so the next few weeks could be challenging.”

The district has employed a “scalpel approach” to mitigation so far this year – continuous monitoring and reporting, quarantines, online learning and masks in classrooms where cases are high.

Now, with cases widespread and soaring – more than 70 new cases reported Monday – the school board voted that evening to approve a broader approach involving masking at all schools through Jan. 31 and a move to distance learning at the high school through Jan. 21. Distance learning will be implemented for high school students on Thursday, Jan. 13. Masking protocols at every are now in effect.

The decision followed extensive discussion and the vote was not unanimous, 5-2 for masking and 4-3 for temporary distance learning. Board members Luke DeBoer and Alycia Myers voted against masking; and the pair were joined by vice chair Jackie Johnson in opposing the distance learning switch.

The big issue along with student absences is whether the district will have enough substitutes to cover the teachers who are out due to the virus, or isolated due to contacts with it. School administrators indicated they don’t have the staffing to run programs and that the move to distance learning could address the issue by enabling teachers and staff to provide instruction and support remotely as was done earlier in the pandemic.

While acknowledging distance learning is not the best teaching option, advocates for the approach, along with district-wide masking, noted the move is temporary and “could salvage the school year.”

Other discussion Monday focused on new recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for isolation of positive COVID cases from 10 to five days with an additional five days of masking for those healthy enough to return early. Minnesota public schools have been waiting for guidance from the departments of health and education on how to move forward with the protocols. On Monday, the Waconia school board agreed to update its “safe learning plan” with new CDC guidance.

In the meantime, vaccinations and testing continue to be primary mitigation strategies in the fight against COVID.

Carver County Public Health has ramped up testing at the Waconia Event Center to three days a week – Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from 12-4 p.m. Learn more at carver.co.mn.us/covid19testing.

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