May need to reconsider keeping schools open, says board member
Officials from the 191 school district expressed growing concern on Nov. 18 about the rise in COVID-19 cases, with one suggesting the district may need to reconsider 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 lead to cases all over Minnesota. Hospital capacity is at crisis level.”
In District 191, on Nov. 12, 446 students were home from school “because of the effects of COVID,” according to Bernadette Bien, senior school nurse. Over a three-week period, the number of contract searches of students who tested positive and were contagious in school rose from 21 to 30 to 37, Bien said.
According to Bien, a total of 176 students tested positive during the school year, with 26 new cases the week before. A total of 125 cases prompted investigation, she said.
A total of 44 staff members have tested positive, and the total number of investigations rose from 37 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 number of seven-day cases in the province rose from 325 the previous week to 509 in the current week, with a test positivity rate of 12.18%, she said.
Scott County’s number of cases rose from 389 to 785, with a 15.57% positivity rate, she said.
“I’m almost speechless,” said board member Abigail Alt. “This was definitely a very sobering report.”
Alt encouraged colleagues to think about the point where the board should reconsider its direction that schools remain open this year with mitigating measures, including mandatory masking.
“I don’t know if this is the right time, but I’m definitely worried,” she said. “I know it’s always best to have students in school. I’m also not sure if sending them home is necessarily also a good solution and would protect them. There are just so many variables.”
Board chairman Eric Miller called for “creative ideas to deal with this” other than closing schools.
“Instead of suddenly, in reactive mode, having to shut things down and send everyone home at night, maybe we can find some intermediate steps,” Miller said. For example, students who do well in school and need less attention from teachers can stay home for distance learning a day or two a week, creating more social distancing at school, he said.
Hopes of returning to “a sense of normal” this fall are gone, Battle said.
“I have to tell you I am exhausted from COVID,” she said. “And a few days ago, my employees just had to pick me up and tell us to keep going. It is very difficult. I wish I could take this mask off now. We just have to persevere and continue with our priority.”
Statewide, the increase in child cases and hospitalizations since the start of the school year is “alarming,” Battle said. A student and eight employees have died from COVID, she said.
“Minnesota has the highest number of seven-day cases in the United States, and all but one counties fall into the high-transmission category,” Bien said.
Children, in general, are less affected by COVID than adults, but are still at risk of serious illness, hospitalization and death, Battle said, reading a warning letter to Minnesota superintendents and school board members from 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 strategies for reducing disease, children and school staff are unnecessarily put at risk,” the letter said.
Alt said the district may be falling short.
“By talking to families and students and having just received a report on class size and enrollment, we can’t say we’re keeping all our students as far as possible,” she said. “I understand that planning and staffing all play a part in that. We have a staff shortage. I get it.”
Perhaps instruction through the district’s Virtual Academy, a new option for students this year, could be used to alleviate staffing and replace teacher shortages, some caused by absenteeism, and reduce staff stress, Alt said.
“We have to be creative,” she says. “We have a lot to face.”
District food services, which had to expand during the pandemic, are being challenged. Several out-of-state districts have been dropped by their primary food distributor, said Lisa Rider, executive director of business services.
“Some districts go to Costco and Sam’s Club,” Battle said.
District 191 didn’t have to, but it’s an ongoing effort to collect meals amid staff absenteeism and some inventory shortages, Rider said.
“We believe our primary distributor, Upper Lakes Foods of Cloquet, Minnesota, is in it for the long haul, and they are doing their very best to support schools,” Rider said. “They are suffering from a staff shortage and we are feeling the effects of that by seeing deliveries that are actually late, but at least they are arriving.”
Food service employees are finding replacements for missing items, and some menus are being changed “at the last minute,” Rider said. There is a nationwide shortage of popular chicken and egg products, she said.
The problems can “continue for us and get a bit worse,” Rider said. “At the same time, we have a very creative team of people” looking for solutions, such as heavy use of staple foods already stored in district freezers, she said.
A newly approved vaccination of children ages 5 to 11 could offer hope to stop the spread of COVID, 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 phone calls to families during contract tracing investigations, Bien said.
“That personal touch goes a long way,” she said. “COVID is difficult, it’s confusing, and when families first hear something, it takes a while to process, not unlike the information you’re processing tonight.”