West Fargo School Board decides to keep COVID-19 policies unchanged as one school nears threshold for action | INFORUM

Local News 1-12-2021 IN FORUM 52

The board met Tuesday to discuss eliminating part of their COVID-19 mitigation strategy that states a school could move to distance learning if 5% of the population has active cases of the coronavirus.

On Nov. 30, Legacy Elementary School reported 25 active positive cases in students at the school and two staff cases, which is 5.2% of the total school population.

According to the district's policy, if 4% of a school's total student and staff population is identified as having an active case of the coronavirus, the strategy is to require masks for all students and staff in the school for at least 14 calendar days or until the cases drop below 4%.

If a school reaches 5%, the strategy is to "consider moving a grade level or entire school to temporary distance learning for at least 10 calendar days or until the case rate drops below 5%."

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On Tuesday, the school board decided that the policy wording was fine, but additional communication with staff and families needed to be clarified so that everyone understands a 5% threshold will not automatically trigger a building or grade level of students to move to distance learning.

Superintendent Beth Slette said the district met with the North Dakota Department of Health and Essentia Health Tuesday morning and saw that Legacy Elementary School had about 4% to 5% of its students testing positive for COVID-19.

She said she believes those numbers are overall still very low and would not warrant closing an entire school.

"I don't think closing Legacy or any of our schools would solve that problem right now," Slette said.

There are 14 active cases of COVID-19 among the popultion at Brooks Harbor and 11 at Cheney Middle School. There are currently 63 elementary students with active positive cases across the district with 22 middle school students testing positive and 11 high school students testing positive.

According to the district site, there have been 4,340 rapid tests administered at buildings across the district since school started, and of those, 235 have been positive.

"Families are watching this, and they're scared we're going to close. There is a lot of anxiety," Slette said.

Public Relations Director Heather Leas said she wants the policy language to be clear, and right now, there is room for interpretation.

Slette clarified that if a building reaches a certain threshold, masking no longer becomes optional and rapid testing is also mandated. If families refuse to mask and test at that point, they must enter distance learning.

"If they don't want their child to wear a mask and they don't want to get tested, we're still going to provide the child an education," Slette said. "We're trying to manage that the best we can."

Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Schools Rachael Agre said the schools with higher case counts have taken mitigation steps such as postponing holiday concerts or implementing mask requirements for some grade levels.

This is the second West Fargo school with high numbers this school year, while some have had almost no cases, Board Member Patti Stedman said.

Slette pointed out that if schools must close, some children may have to go to their grandparents' home during the day which could pose a threat as older individuals are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19.

"No matter what we do, there are risks, and we are just trying to weigh the risks and find the best way to educate students, which is our job," Slette said.

About a dozen parents and staff members attended Tuesday's meeting and voiced an even mix of opinions regarding the district's COVID-19 policy.

Jordan Willgohs, president of the West Fargo Teachers Union, asked the board not to change its mitigation strategies.

"This is a great concern to the teachers, what our mitigation strategies should be," Willgohs said. "Tonight's suggested change would take the threshold away and add in its place something that I would say is too small of a consolation. It kind of feels like we are moving the threshold because we hit it, and that is not what thresholds are for.

A fifth grade teacher spoke about the mental health issues the COVID-19 pandemic has caused and said he suffered issues himself due to the pandemic.

"It's not fun talking about this in public," he said. "Please don't dismiss me. Don't dismiss me. Help me help my family, please."

Kris Lindemann has been in the district for 17 years as a teacher and parent.

"Our teachers are weary," she said. "There's no good spot to be in right now. I know this is hard for all of you, but please think of everyone. No matter what you decide, this is really hard on your staff and your students."

"It's important to me my kids stay in school to continue their education, and it is important to me that I make medical decisions," said parent Tara Bultema.

The district's full COVID-19 mitigation measures include, for kindergarten through fifth grade, if two positive cases are found in a classroom and the department of health says they are likely related, the district would complete contact tracing and then require masks for all those still in the classroom for 14 calendar days.

If a third case is identified in an elementary classroom and the department of health determines the cases are related, the district would consider moving the classroom to distance learning for 10 days.

The district will begin contact tracing once a second positive case, linked to the first case through school-based spread, is identified in a classroom. A close contact is any individual who was closer than 6 feet for longer than 15 minutes in a day.

Vaccinated individuals who are close contacts will not have to quarantine unless symptomatic. Unvaccinated, unmasked individuals identified as close contacts have the option of rapid testing every other day for seven days in order to continue coming to school without restrictions. They must always receive a negative result and never present symptoms.

The district decided on Aug. 8 that it would not require masks at the start of the school year.

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