No remote waivers in the works yet for most local school districts

Tuesday, November 17, 2020

The rate of positive COVID-19 tests in Dickinson County broke 15 percent as the month began, opening up the potential for local school districts to move at least some education online. The rate broke 20 percent Thursday, which allows districts to move fully online. Both changes would require schools to file a waiver with the Iowa Department of Education but, most districts in the county said they have no current plans to move classes online.

Katy Burke, director of of Dickinson County Population and Public Health, said her office had not advised any school district to shift to an online model as of Friday. She said Public Health acts as a resource for the school districts as they each consider their individual factors.

"There are a couple pieces of information that are good to know regarding whether or not the school districts decide to change their learning format," Burke said. "First, the largest positivity rate in the county is not among kids in kindergarten through high school. The largest positivity rate is among those ages 18 to 29 years old. Second, we haven’t seen absenteeism rates get anywhere near 10 percent, which is the level in which schools usually consider other learning formats."

She went on to explain school absentee rates don't include children who are quarantined because of exposure to a positive case of COVID-19 — but it does include children who are sick with COVID-19 or another illness.

"Children that have been quarantining have been quarantined because of parents being sick, and not the other way around," Burke said. "We appreciate parents coming forward to ensure their children quarantine, because it has kept the absenteeism rates — the number of children that get sick — down."

Harris-Lake Park

Harris-Lake Park students will now be required to wear masks in the middle school and high school buildings. Masks for elementary school students at H-LP will only be recommended. (File photo)

There were no plans at Monday's meeting of the Harris-Lake Park School Board to request a waiver for online learning, school superintendent Andy Irwin said.

"The board did not consider hybrid or online learning for either building, although we do fall into the recommendations set forth by the department of education and public health," he said.

However, Irwin said the board did vote to require the use of face coverings for staff and students in the district's middle school/high school building. The district had previously taken no action on a mask mandate during its Oct. 8 meeting. Minutes from that meeting showed Irwin had recommended the board require masks be used when maintaining 6 feet of distance was not possible, "because the least amount of kids would have to quarantine." Though masks will now be used in the upper grade levels, Irwin said the board decided to only recommend they be used by the elementary staff and students.

The Iowa Department of Public Health decided in October to no longer require two weeks of quarantine if masks were being worn properly by both a person with COVID-19 and any exposed individuals while in close contact. Burke expressed hope at the time that the new guidelines might increase mask usage among the general public. She said Dickinson County Public Health would like to see universal masking within the community, which she said aligns with IDPH's recommendations.

"Unfortunately we’re not able to determine if mask use has increased or not within the community other than those organizations that have implemented masking guidelines or requirements," she said Friday. "For example, we know the schools require masks at sporting events and in the hallways and when distancing cannot be accomplished. We also know that Walmart requires masks, as do other retail businesses."

The H-LP School District has recorded three positive cases of COVID-19 among its middle school and high school students as of Monday, but none among its elementary students. A total of 47 H-LP students and two staff members were listed as being in quarantine or learning online as the week began, which Irwin said is at about 18 percent of the middle school/high school population. He said the elementary's rate is at about 9 percent.


Okoboji Activities Director Justin Bouse sported a cloth face mask emblazoned with the school district's markings during this year's outdoor graduation ceremony in June. The district voted to require masks in the schools as of Oct. 7. (File photo)

At Okoboji Schools, mask usage has been the policy since early October, and Okoboji Superintendent Todd Abrahamson said district has not yet found the schools to be in need of shifting their educational format.

"Although the percentage of positive tests in our county is rising, our rate of COVID-related absence remains fairly low at this time," Abrahamson said Friday. "We have not documented cases of spread within our buildings, and we have not yet experienced large-scale staff shortages that we have been unable to cover."

Abrahamson said the district continues to monitor each of those factors, but there is "no hard and fast rule or tipping point" at which the Okoboji School District would be forced to shift to an online learning model. He said, under a hybrid model, the district would reduce the number of students in the school buildings by alternating students' in-person and online attendance. He noted a fully online model would potentially bring a variety of difficulties like childcare needs for parents and student access to technology. He said a fully online model would also prompt the district to put a hold on extracurricular activities and practices.

"Our goal has been and continues to be 100 percent in-person as much as possible this year," Abrahamson said "We are very pleased that we have been able to maintain this learning model throughout the first two-and-a-half months of the school year."

Okoboji officials have been reporting their positive cases and quarantines in ranges of five to protect privacy rights, and the district's numbers have showed an increase over the last two weeks. The district has reported between one and five active cases each week since September, but it's Nov. 6 report bumped that range up to between six and 10 cases. The Nov. 13 numbers show between 10 and 15 active cases among Okoboji's students and staff. Quarantines and isolations are up to between 50 and 55 individuals — an all-time high so far, and up from 25 to 30 the previous week — for about 4.3 percent of the school population.


Spirit Lake students spread out in groups on the high school football field ahead of this year's homecoming coronation. The district began the school year with masks being required on buses, in hallways but not necessarily in classrooms. (File photo)

Spirit Lake School District officials also don't plan to apply for a waiver from the state.

"As a district, we feel good about where our school numbers lie and the mitigation strategies we have in place," Angela Olsen, the district's director of special projects, said. "We regularly review the recommendations and implement those strategies that are applicable to our district/community for the positivity rate."

She said Spirit Lake officials have been consulting regularly with Dickinson County Public Health and watching not only positive case counts, but also quarantines, absences and the particular details regarding exposures to positive cases.

Olsen said the district had 33 students quarantined as of Monday, and she said 28 of those were due to exposure within the home rather than school. The district was aware of only two active cases of COVID-19 as of Monday, Olsen said — one high school student and one staff member. The current pair of cases brought the district's overall count to 39 cases so far this school year. Olson said the district's illness related absences continue to hover between 1 and 3 percent of the school's population.

The Spirit Lake School Board plans to meet in special session today (Nov. 18) at the district office. The only two items on the agenda aside from reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are discussion on salaries and a COVID-19 update.

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