District COVID-19 plans vary ahead of new school year

Wednesday, August 18, 2021
Photo by Seth Boyes

Students in the Lakes Area will return to the classroom next week. The Spirit Lake, Okoboji and Harris-Lake Park School Districts will each start the new school year Monday. The districts monitored the spread of COVID-19 among staff and students most of last year, while also keeping an ear to the ground for policy changes passed down from the state level. Now, with viral permutations such as the Delta variant circulating among the public, plans for what to do after Monday's first bell are being finalized by the local school districts.

Dickinson County Public Health Director Katy Burke said state health officials detected the Dickinson County's first case of the Delta variant in June.

"We do not yet have the county-level data for July and August, but state-level variant information shows that Iowa cases are almost completely comprised of the Delta variant, paired with a very small percentage of UK variant cases," she said.

Burke went on to say the county's positive COVID-19 test results have increased compared to June and July. She said about 10 cases are being confirmed on average each week, which she noted is similar to the numbers from last May about two months after the county's first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed. She said five individuals with COVID-19 have been hospitalized at Lakes Regional Healthcare since May 1, but the number of inpatients with COVID-19 averages out to about one a week it was about two when Burke's office began tracking the statistic back in late November.

"Last year, the number of positive COVID cases was lowest in August and then increased in September with the spike in November," Burke said. "We will see what happens this fall and winter now that many people are vaccinated."

State health officials instructed Iowa's school districts in mid-May to respond to COVID-19 as they would any other illness. All three local school districts had required face coverings for certain grade levels and settings at some point or another during the previous academic year. Each district relaxed their respective COVID-19 policies between late April and early May.

All of the districts had also been tracking COVID-19 activity among students and staff during the previous academic year positive individuals were quarantined, and individuals who were potentially exposed to the virus were isolated as a precaution in many cases. Spirit Lake Schools plans to continue monitoring COVID-19 activity as it enters the next year.

"We will use the data to help guide our decisions moving forward," said Angela Olsen, Spirit Lake's director of special projects."The district will track internally while providing periodic updates, as we did last year."

Olsen went on to say the district won't require masks to be used as the fall semester begins the district began last year with masks mandated only on buses, in hallways and in other areas where the recommended 6-foot separation wasn't possible. Olsen said the district will maximize space in most classrooms this year, having at least 3 feet of distance between students. Cleaning and sanitizing procedures are expected to be in place, and Olsen said students returning to class after any illness will have procedures to follow. The district also plans to continue informing individuals of possible exposure to the virus, but quarantines will not be required.

Okoboji Superintendent Todd Abrahamson said Okoboji Schools will not continue to track COVID-19 activity within the district. Okoboji Schools had previously provided information to the public through an online dashboard, which was updated weekly to show the number of active cases as well as isolations and quarantines the district posted the stats in ranges of five to protect potential privacy rights.

An addendum to the district's Return to Learn Plan for the coming school year noted state legislation from late May now prevents Iowa schools from mandating the use of masks, but that doesn't mean they can't be used.

"Masks will continue to be optional for all individuals on any campus just as they were as we finished the 2020-2021 school year," the district's information said.

The district's plan went on say quarantine for individuals exposed to the COVID-19 virus will be neither recommended nor required.

"We will not be contact tracing and contacting parents to alert them of an exposure at any school function," the district said. "If parents are aware of an exposure and would choose to quarantine their child(ren), it would be an excused absence."

Comment from Harris-Lake Park Schools could not be returned prior to publication. The district had been providing period updates to the public through its own online dashboard. H-LP Superintendent Andy Irwin was unsure near the end of last school year whether the district would continue doing so after the summer break. H-LP is the smallest of the three school districts and never reported more than five positive cases at any given time during the previous school year the district actually dropped to zero cases in mid-March, when the other two district counts were beginning a climb that would peak in the teens.

Students in a number of grade levels are too young to be eligible for the current COVID-19 vaccines. But Burke noted the vaccine developed by Pfizer is available for individuals age 12 and older through the local public health office or a local pharmacy.

"Dickinson County Public Health is concerned about COVID-19 spreading among all populations, including students, especially as the Delta variant is more contagious and this is a largely unvaccinated population," Burke said. "This past year, the likelihood of younger individuals having a bad health outcome if they did get the virus was low, and we hope positive cases continue to remain mild for the majority of this population as the Delta variant spreads."

Burke went on to say there is also some concern young students could contract the virus and pass it on to individuals who may not fair as well against it. She reiterated that Public Health recommends a layered approach to lessening the potential spread of COVID-19 in the community stay home when sick, wash hands regularly, social distance when appropriate and consider wearing a face mask in public.

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