Six months have passed since area students sat down for classes inside their schools. The COVID-19 pandemic left communities and school districts scrambling to plan ways to provide education. Next week, students will be returning to the classroom with new plans in place. Community partnership is key to area schools reopening.
Area school districts like Wadena-Deer Creek have developed a partnership with Tri-County Health Care and Sourcewell to provide a safe and effective learning experience. Parents and the community will have significant roles to play in keeping kids in school moving forward.
What will school look like this year?
Staff at schools are excited to get students back in the building this year. The Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education have guided several changes to procedures for the upcoming school year. Tri-County Health Care also offered a team of professionals, including providers, to review the plan and provide recommendations on key components. The goal is to have students back in school as much as possible. However, it is likely that there will be a shift in learning formats depending on COVID-19 cases in the community.
Changes at Wadena-Deer Creek:
- Cleaning protocols: There are new daily and weekly cleaning procedures within the schools. Additional custodial staff will be cleaning and disinfecting high-touch surfaces throughout the day.
- Student screening: Parents need to check temperatures and look for any COVID-19 symptoms before sending their children to school. Even if there is a slight fever, school districts recommend keeping children at home. Schools expect a higher than average absence rate and will work with parents.
- Social distancing: Students will be socially distanced to the extent possible when they are in school. There will also be different procedures when coming to and from school. This year will have designated drop zones and entrances for staff and different age groups of students. Lunchtime will also look different – there will be no self-serve option and instead, food will be put together for students.
- Face masks requirement: The best way to keep everyone as safe as possible inside the classroom is to wear face masks. Students are allowed to take masks off when eating and drinking, in physical education class and outside while social distancing. Teachers are encouraged to take students outside to give them a chance to take masks off and get fresh air.
- Hand hygiene: There will be regular handwashing with soap plus hand sanitizer in each classroom.
- Air circulation: The advanced HVAC system will provide increased circulation of fresh air in the buildings.
- Limiting bus capacity: Buses will run at 50 percent capacity. Wadena-Deer Creek appreciates families that stepped up and volunteered to bring their kids to and from school to help achieve this mitigation effort.
The importance of wearing a mask
Wearing face masks is the most crucial component in keeping students safe. It will be mandatory and a key to allowing students to continue in-person learning. Wadena-Deer Creek encourages families to teach children the importance of wearing a mask. Additionally, children should practice wearing them before the school year begins.
“It’s really important for our parents to be partners with the school on this. We need our parents to talk to their kids about wearing masks,” said Wadena-Deer Creek Superintendent Lee Westrum. “We’ll do our part at the school. Our teachers do a great job of educating our kids and this topic will be no different. We will be front and center in working with our kids to drive home the importance of masks.”
The highest risk situation for spreading the virus is large indoor gatherings. In-person learning falls under this category. There have been health concerns about wearing masks and Tri-County Health Care’s Chief Medical Officer, Ben Hess, M.D., assures parents they are safe for children.
“Masks can be stuffy, uncomfortable and take time to get used to,” Dr. Hess said. “But I want to stress to parents that masks are very safe. There are very few, if any, medical exceptions that will affect their ability to breathe well.”
Community mitigation efforts are crucial
The importance of community partnership in mitigation efforts like social distancing, wearing a mask and hand hygiene remains key for schools reopening. Everyone agrees in-person learning is the best way for students to receive their education.
This year, there will be state mandates where schools must transition away from in-person learning if the number of COVID-19 positive tests in the county increases. The model is based on positive tests per 10,000 people in a two-week period.
Wadena County has remained within the range for in-person learning but has seen an uptick of positive cases in the last two weeks. On August 17, the county had 30 positive cases. That number went up to 49 over the next two weeks.
For students to remain in school and not move to a hybrid in-person/online or fully online curriculum, it is critical for the community to keep positive cases low. A partnership from the community to practice mitigation efforts will be key to allowing the reopening of schools.
“We’re all concerned that if we don’t follow these rules when kids are back in school, we will see the virus quickly spread through the community,” Dr. Hess said. “We will be watching that closely and doing what we can to help the schools.”