COVID-19 FAQ: How to Keep Schools Open

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Many months have passed since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. However, there are still unknowns surrounding COVID-19 and what its effect will be moving forward. Tri-County Health Care, Wadena-Deer Creek Schools and Sourcewell hosted a community town hall to answer questions from the public. Topics addressed included how influenza differs from COVID-19 and how to keep schools open this year.

Tri-County Health Care COVID-19 Coronavirus Schools Reopening Germs Hand Hygiene Masks

What are the differences between COVID-19 and influenza?

Ben Hess, M.D.: The main symptoms of COVID-19 and influenza are similar. Nobody can look at a patient and tell if they have one or the other. That is why we must do testing to sort through it and find an answer. We have quite a few treatments that are effective for the flu.

The main difference is that COVID-19 is more dangerous than the flu. If you look at the statistics, the flu kills around 30,000 Americans every year. We have already lost 180,000 to COVID-19.

How can people prepare for the flu season? Will this flu season be different this year?

Dr. Hess: Both the flu and COVID-19 are spread through droplets. That means the measures people are taking to protect themselves from COVID-19 will be effective at limiting the spread of the flu. These mitigation efforts include social distancing, wearing a mask and practicing good hand hygiene.

Another way to prepare is to get the annual flu shot. It will be important because if a patient is showing symptoms and has had the flu vaccination, it will be easier for the provider to determine the illness. If a patient presents with a fever, muscle aches, runny nose and sore throat and have had a flu shot, the suspicion that it’s COVID-19 is much higher.

In a typical year, I recommend getting the flu shot in October or November for this region. However, with COVID-19 active in the community, it’s more important to get it sooner.

What will school look like this year?

Wadena-Deer Creek School District Superintendent Lee Westrum: We plan to keep the schools open and students in the classroom, but we know we will likely have to shift between the three learning formats described below, depending on the COVID-19 data in our community. We’re also offering distance learning as an option for any family who wishes to choose a more consistent schedule as part of a full-time, at-home learning model.

When students are in school, we will follow the Minnesota Department of Health guidelines to mitigate risks associated with the spread of COVID-19. Our safety protocols include:

  • Physical distancing of individuals in classrooms and common areas, and visual reminders for physical distancing
  • Face coverings for all staff and students in our buildings
  • Handwashing with soap and/or hand sanitizer in each classroom
  • Limited sharing of supplies.
  • Increased daily and weekly enhanced cleaning and disinfecting
  • Increased circulation of outside air into buildings due to our advanced HVAC system

What happens to the learning model if there is a surge of COVID-19 cases in the area?

Lee Westrum: The three learning models in our safe learning plan include in-person learning, hybrid learning and distance learning. These three learning formats may shift depending on COVID-19 data in our community. The state of Minnesota has put together a system to help guide schools about what learning model to use. This system is based on the number of positive COVID-19 tests per 10,000 people in the county over a two-week period. Our district plans to discuss shifting models at these positive case levels:

  • 10 positive cases per 10,000: Students in grades 7-12 would shift to hybrid learning. Elementary students would remain in school.
  • 20 positive cases per 10,000: All students shift to hybrid learning.
  • 30 positive cases per 10,000: Students in grades 7-12 shift to distance learning. Elementary remains with hybrid learning.
  • 50 positive cases: All students shift to distance learning.

How can the community help keep our schools open with in-person learning this year?

Lee Westrum: The main factor in keeping our students in school is by keeping our community COVID-19 infection rates low. We all agree we want our kids in school. It’s important for our parents and community members to be partners with the school on this. That means committing to mitigation efforts at home and in the community. By making this commitment, it will allow us to keep our infection rates low and help us achieve our goal of providing an excellent education while maintaining a safe environment for everyone.

Is it still important to flatten the curve?

Joel Beiswenger, President and CEO: The original concept of flattening the curve was to make sure health care systems didn’t get overrun with the virus. The efforts allowed time for training on how best to care for patients and to acquire personal protective equipment. Now, it’s important to flatten the curve to manage community spread and allow our schools to maintain in-person learning. It’s the same concept with a different perspective on it.

Dr. Hess: When you’re dealing with a virus like this, it has the potential for exponential growth. It only takes a few cases to turn into hundreds or thousands. We’re always flattening the curve, but now we’re focused on doing it to avoid a large-scale shutdown. It’s how we keep our schools and businesses open this year.

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Community Partnership is Key to Schools Reopening

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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.

COVID-19 Tri-County Health Care germs

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.

COVID-19 Tri-County Health Care germs

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.”

Helpful links to learn more about how to prevent the spread of COVID-19:

Tri-County Health Care

Wadena-Deer Creek Schools


Minnesota Department of Health

Minnesota Department of Education