School District 191 is faring comparatively well in the new school year despite the COVID-19 virus, administrators told the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School Board Oct. 14.
Unlike some in Minnesota, the district hasn’t had to switch any schools to distance learning because of COVID-19 spread, Superintendent Theresa Battle said.
As of Oct. 18, one district school — Burnsville High School — was among the 28 in Dakota County with COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Minnesota Department of Health data. The statewide total exceeded 400. MDH lists schools with five or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in students or staff who were in a building while infectious during a two-week reporting period.
As of Oct. 14, 240 district students were out of school for COVID-19 quarantine or isolation, said Bernie Bien, the district’s lead licensed school nurse. Dakota and Scott counties are still in “high transmission,” she said.
There have been 71 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in district buildings since Aug. 23, Bien said. In recent weeks, COVID-19 case investigations per week have dropped from 24 to 15 to six, she said.
The district requires masking in its buildings for anyone 3 or older, regardless of vaccination status. The board approved the rule before the start of school in September. The state health department and federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend school masking, but Gov. Tim Walz no longer has emergency powers to enforce it statewide.
Among its other mitigation measures, the district requires students, staff and visitors to stay home if they have tested positive, have symptoms or are awaiting test results after showing symptoms. The district attempts to keep students 3 feet apart but doesn’t require it.
“The hard decisions as a board that you’ve had to make (and) Dr. Battle, I’m here to tell you it is working,” Bien said. “Our priority is health and safety for our students and our community, and we are doing that.”
In seeking comparisons with other districts’ experiences this year, Bien said she received a memo from the health department’s epidemiology department thanking 191 for following state and federal guidance.
“We do believe it’s making a difference in your school district, as your case numbers are definitely low compared to most other schools in the metro,” Bien said, reading the memo. “In particular, you don’t appear to have any clusters or outbreaks in any of your schools, and it sounds like your follow-up has been manageable, which is not the same in other schools.”
The district is taking the needed steps to keep schools open, the memo said.
Battle said she hopes to see case numbers decline soon. Transmission of the delta variant is high in Minnesota but has peaked nationally and in some hard-hit states.
“I think we’re experiencing some COVID exhaustion,” Battle said. “I don’t think any of us thought we would be in a place where we are where we’re in high transmission.”
COVID-19 vaccination rates are slowly rising, Bien said. In Dakota County, 65%of 12-to-15-year-olds have had at least one dose, she said. Burnsville High School held a vaccination clinic in cooperation with Dakota County Public Health, and another was scheduled for Burnsville Alternative High School, Bien said.
Among district employees, 63% of the 989 covered under the district’s health plan have been vaccinated, Battle said.
“This likely does not reflect all employees that have been vaccinated,” she said. “Not all employees qualify for insurance. Some may be on other health plans.” Some may have been vaccinated through free clinics that didn’t request insurance information.
The district’s staff vaccination rate is close to Dakota County’s first-dose rate of 65% for residents 12 and older, Battle said.
“We do need consent to find an employee’s vaccination status,” she said. State guidance on streamlining districts’ collection of vaccination data may be forthcoming, Battle said.
Meanwhile, rules are being developed for President Joe Biden’s executive order requiring employee vaccinations or regular COVID-19 testing for employers of 100 or more.
“This board might be faced with having a very serious conversation about that in the future, and framing that with understanding what is the reality of the world we exist in now will help out,” Board Chair Eric Miller said. “If we know a percentage number, that might make a big impact on how we look at that problem and that conversation.”
Dakota Child and Family Clinic in Burnsville has conducted testing for students referred from school health offices, Bien said. The clinic has expanded testing to include siblings who accompany students going to the clinic for testing, she said.
The district is funding three contracted nurse positions to investigate cases in school, Bien said.
“Investigations and contract tracing takes quite a bit of time, and as you know, our nurses are also seeing the normal, everyday student reasons to come to the nurse,” she said. “Strep throat is still here.”
The district may provide a nurse position to Dakota Child and Family Clinic, she said.
Free school meals are being affected by supply-chain disruptions, Battle said.
“We have sent a notice to families anticipating that our menu choices may be impacted,” she said, asking for patience. “You may not always see the food that you’re expecting, whether it’s breakfast or lunch,” Battle said.
The district stands ready to return to distance learning if circumstances require, she said.
But Burnsville High School senior Zoe Olson said students are glad to be back in school.
“Students feel they are learning a lot more from being in person, both learning and with all the extracurricular activities they’ve been able to participate in,” said Olson, the board’s student representative.