May have to rethink keeping schools open, one board member says 

School District 191 officials expressed growing worry Nov. 18 over the surge in COVID-19 cases, with one suggesting the district may have to rethink its commitment to keeping schools open.

Cases among Minnesota children ages 5 to 11 “have surpassed all previous peaks,” Superintendent Theresa Battle told the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board. “Cases in our children are driving cases throughout Minnesota. Hospital capacity is at a crisis level.”

In District 191, 446 students were home from school “due to the effects of COVID” as of Nov. 12, according to Bernadette Bien, lead licensed school nurse. Over a three-week period the number of contract-tracing investigations of students who tested positive and were infectious in school rose from 21 to 30 to 37, Bien said.

A total of 176 students have tested positive during the school year, with 26 new cases in the previous week, according to Bien. A total of 125 cases prompted investigations, she said.

A total of 44 staff members have tested positive, with total case investigations rising to 37 from 32 in the previous week, she said.

In Dakota County 19.5 percent of new cases in the current week were in children under 12, Bien said. The county’s seven-day case rate rose from 325 the prior week to 509 in the current week, with a test positivity rate of 12.18%, she said.

Scott County’s case rate rose from 389 to 785, with a 15.57% positivity rate, she said.

“I’m almost speechless,” Board Member Abigail Alt said. “This definitely was a very sobering report.”

Alt encouraged colleagues to think about the point at which the board should reconsider its direction that schools remain open this year with mitigation steps that include mandatory masking.

“I don’t know that this is the time, but I’m definitely worried,” she said. “I know that having students in school is always the best. I’m also not sure that sending them home is necessarily a good solution either and would protect them. There are just so many variables.”

Board Chair Eric Miller called for “creative ideas on how to deal with this” short of closing schools.

“Instead of just suddenly having to, in reactive mode, shut things down and send everybody home overnight, we can maybe find some in-between steps,” Miller said. For example, students who are doing well in school and need less attention from teachers might stay home a day or two a week for distance learning, creating more social distancing in school, he said.

Hopes of returning to “some sense of normal this fall” have been dashed, Battle said.

“I must tell you, I am exhausted from COVID,” she said. “And a few days ago my staff, they just had to lift me up to say we have to continue. It’s very hard. I wish I could take this mask off right now. We just have to persist and continue with our priority.”

Statewide, the rise in childhood cases and hospitalizations since the beginning of the school year has been “alarming,” Battle said. One student and eight staff members have died from COVID, she said.

“Minnesota has the highest seven-day case rate in the United States, and all but one county are in the high-transmission category,” Bien said.

Children are generally less affected by COVID than adults but remain at risk for severe illness, hospitalization and death, Battle said, reading a cautionary letter to Minnesota superintendents and school board members from state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm and Dr. Sheldon Berkowitz, president of the state chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

About 1 in 100 children with COVID are hospitalized, Battle said.

Without “effective disease mitigation strategies in place, children and school staff are being put at undue risk,” the letter said.

Alt said the district may be falling short.

“Talking with families and students and having just received a report about class size and enrollment, we can’t say that we’re socially distancing all of our students to the best of our ability,” she said. “I understand that scheduling and staff all play into that. We have a staffing shortage. I get that.”

Maybe instruction through the district’s Virtual Academy, a new option for students this year, can be used to alleviate staff and substitute teacher shortages, some caused by absenteeism, and reduce stress among staff, Alt said.

“We need to get creative,” she said. “We have a lot that we’re facing.”

District food services, which have had to expand during the pandemic, are challenged. Several outstate districts have been dropped by their primary food distributor, said Lisa Rider, executive director of business services.

“Some districts, they’re going to Costco and Sam’s Club,” Battle said.

District 191 hasn’t had to, but it’s a continual strain to assemble meals amid staff absenteeism and some supply shortages, Rider said.

“We believe our primary distributor, Upper Lakes Foods from Cloquet, Minnesota, is in it for the long haul, and they’re doing the very best they can to support schools,” Rider said. “They are experiencing a shortage of employees and we are experiencing the repercussions of that by seeing deliveries that are arriving basically late, but at least they’re arriving.”

Food service workers find substitutes for missing items, and some menus are changed “on a last-minute notice,” Rider said. There’s a nationwide shortage of popular chicken and egg products, she said.

The problems could “continue and worsen a little for us,” Rider said. “At the same time, we do have a very creative team of people” seeking solutions, such as heavy use of commodity foods already stored in district freezers, she said.

Newly approved vaccination of children ages 5 to 11 may offer hope for stemming the COVID spread, Bien said. Some children will be fully vaccinated by mid-December, she said.

Meanwhile, the district is considering hiring “COVID clerks” to help with some of the calls to families during contract-tracing investigations, Bien said.

“That personal touch goes a long way,” she said. “COVID is hard, it’s confusing, and when families first hear something, it takes them awhile to process that, no different than the information you’re processing tonight.”

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