By Anna Jauhola
As positive COVID-19 cases rise in Kittson County, school and health officials are working to ensure public safety. As of Monday afternoon, Oct. 26, Kittson County’s total case count was 51, and active cases had increased to 25, according to Kittson County Public Health.
Superintendents at Kittson Central and Lancaster schools continue to insist the best and safest place for students is within the school buildings. And, they are working closely with public health officials to determine whether changes in learning models are needed.
Last week, Lancaster School had 15 staff and students out of the building either because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were exposed to someone who had. Kittson Central had three people in quarantine due to close contact with positive cases.
“Obviously, making sure our staff and community are safe, that’s part of it. But when we talk about safety, mental health is another part,” said Shannon Hunstad, Lancaster superintendent. “The family makeup and dynamics are more supported when kids can be here (in the building).”
Both Lancaster and Kittson Central started the year in a hybrid model, which means the high school grades are more spread out. For Lancaster, that means seventh and eighth grades each stay in one room, socially distanced, and teachers rotate to them, Hunstad said. However, the higher grades have fewer students and can spread out more easily.
“If we had a significant number in a certain group, we would go to distance learning,” he said. “But we are already doing some distance learning. We have some who chose that and others who are doing it because they were close contacts, and they have all been in class every day.”
Kittson Central has also been operating in its hybrid model with the high school students more socially distanced. In some classes, a few students will separate to a different classroom on a rotational basis each week. Some just work on the lesson for the day, which is taught in the first 10 minutes of class before they go to a classroom across the hall. Students in other classes are schedule to separate to the computer lab and login to participate in class via Zoom.
“Physically we can fit all the kids into one room, but the distances get too close,” said Bob Jaszczak, Kittson Central superintendent. “So we limit the amount of time those kids are all together in that space … then we spread them out further.”
So the big question has been, with cases rising, when will schools switch from a hybrid model to distancing learning. Both Jaszczak and Hunstad said it’s trickier than just looking at the number of positive cases in the county.
As of Friday, Oct. 23, Lancaster School had 15 people out in quarantine or isolation. As of this week, six of them were back in the building. Hunstad said to change learning models in a two-week period would be more disruptive than effective.
“I’m on the side of, is our school safe? I would say yes,” Hunstad said. “We clean it exceptionally well every day with the Clorox 360 machine. In a week, we know our numbers are changing anyway. We may add four or five a day, but then every day two or three come off the list as well.”
Jaszczak said there is no definite answer to when Kittson Central would go into a different learning model either.
“There isn’t an exact, ‘Yep, this is what we’re going to do,’” Jaszczak said. “Every decision you make impacts everything else.”
At this point, the Kittson County Central sports cooperative between Lancaster and Kittson Central schools has suspended sports activity. It is not cancelled, each superintendent emphasized, but rather on pause and the situation will be reviewed weekly.
“We did not want to be mixing communities any more than we needed to intentionally,” Jaszczak said.
County School Nurse Jeanna Kujava said she is happy with how the schools are handling the COVID-19 situation, especially with students wearing masks.
“The staff is being diligent about the 6 feet when they can, handwashing, mask wearing,” Kujava said. “I’m impressed by the work that is happening. It’s helpful that everybody sees the value of in-person learning and so we’re really trying hard to stay that way as long as we can. I’ve really seen they’re empowering parents to do their part to review the screening checklist before school. It’s just such a collaborative effort. And I think that’s really positive.”
Over the last few weeks, there have been large gatherings within the county and there are planned Halloween gatherings this weekend. Public Health officials are really cautioning people to be smart about how they attend gatherings and how they operate after attending them.
“It’s really difficult to balance the safety and wellness of the community with your individual interests,” Kujava said. “We understand, but it’s important to think of those family members who might be at high risk, those co-workers, community members who are at high risk. It’s important to be mindful to wear masks and take these precautions seriously. If we can prioritize that, this situation we’re in will end sooner.”
Those who attend large gatherings should bear in mind the 6-foot social distancing rule, wear a mask, handwashing and limiting exposure are all paramount.
Public Health Director Cindy Urbaniak agreed, noting that in her and Kujava’s jobs of contact tracing they have found the majority of people are wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands. However, the positive cases in Kittson County were due to school, work and social gathering exposure, rather than exposure at weddings held in recent months. This information does not include most recent events.
Kittson Healthcare is still performing COVID-19 testing, but has scaled back from the rapid tests as kits are in short supply and need to be available for severely ill patients or those in high-risk settings. Other tests will be sent to Sanford’s lab, Urbaniak said, and results are available in two to three days.
For those who don’t want to go into the clinic for a test, the state of Minnesota has launched a pilot program for saliva COVID-19 tests. Kittson County is one of 23 counties able to receive the tests, Urbaniak said. People can log on to the Minnesota Department of Health website to find the Test at Home saliva program signup. See an article on this subject on page 3 of this week’s Enterprise for more information.
By Anna Jauhola