A total of 135 students in the Belle Plaine School District have already had to quarantine at some point this school year. These students either had contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 or had two or more symptoms of the virus, Superintendent Ryan Laager explained at the School Board Work Session on Monday, Oct. 12.
Laager said there have only been two confirmed positive student cases in the district and a couple of confirmed positive staff cases. He said there have been no cases of internal community spread.
“I do feel we are in a good spot and that we are pretty lucky,” said Laager.
One of the biggest challenges this year has been making sure everyone knows the right protocol to follow if they need to quarantine.
“Those would be towards the top, because those types of things can change overnight,” said High School Principal Mindy Chevalier in an interview ahead of the board meeting.
She said school nurses have been putting in extra hours on evenings and weekends to make sure everyone has the right information.
“Our school nurses have been amazing throughout all of this. We couldn’t do it without their leadership when it comes to following the guidance from MDH,” she said.
However, that guidance is changing regularly and school staff has to scramble to keep up. For example, in the last few weeks, MDH released new rules about school bus safety.
Now, if a student riding a school bus for 15 minutes tests positive for COVID-19, any student within six feet of the positive case would need to quarantine.
If a student tests positive for COVID-19 and is on a bus ride longer than 25 minutes, every student on that ride would need to quarantine, regardless of where they were sitting.
Dr. Laager said there are several routes in the district longer than 25 minutes and the rule poses another challenge for sports teams traveling to away games. Coaches have started taking photos of their students on bus rides, so if there is a positive case, they can determine who does or does not need to quarantine.
The superintendent said the district has added more staff members to help alleviate some of the general stress on teachers. A long-term elementary school substitute was hired, as well as a paraprofessional who will work specifically with Chatfield Elementary distance learners.
Learners in Elementary
Dr. Laager said distance learning in the elementary school has been especially difficult. He said some teachers feel they are spending 50 percent of their classroom time on in-person students and 50 percent of their time with distance learners, even when there are only one or two distance learners per classroom. He said technology issues have been one of the main reasons teachers are spending more time with the virtual students.
“The teachers really want all of the students to be in-person learning but understand that families have a choice and need to make a choice that fits their needs,” said Chatfield Principal Kim DeWitte in an email.
Due to class sizes, building space and the number of teachers, all Chatfield students could be in the building every day and meet state health requirements by taking precautions like social distancing and wearing masks. However, families still have the option to choose distance learning.
At the beginning of the school year, 49 Chatfield Elementary students were full-time distance learners, but throughout the first several weeks of classes, many families decided to send students back to school in person.
By Oct. 19, DeWitte expects just 27 students will be full-time distance learners.
“Some families make the change because they have seen the case numbers decrease, other families have switched due to the needs of their child, and other families decided [distance learning] wasn’t a good fit for their child,” she said.
Learners in Secondary
At the Belle Plaine Senior High School, a handful of students went from the hybrid schedule to full-time distance learning, and several other students went from full-time distance learning to going back to school part-time.
“Once people got an understanding of what everything is about, there were some changes in both directions but nothing major,” said Chevalier.
Students in grades 7-12 follow a synchronous learning program where there are A Day students, B Day students and full-time distance learners.
On A Days, for example, the A Day students are in the classroom and the B Day students and full-time distance learners are at home, but zooming into the classroom with their A Day peers.
“That has been something we are very proud of here. That is a huge credit to our teachers for how they’ve embraced that and a credit to the priority our district has placed on technology,” she said.
Dr. Laager said some students want to distance learn on days they are supposed to be in person. The staff is working out a protocol to determine in which situations that would be acceptable.
Special Events / Sports
Another challenge for the district is holding special events with all of the restrictions in place. The administration is making every effort to keep some normalcy and include these events in new ways this year. Dr. Laager said homecoming is definitely still on, though it won’t be the traditional celebration.
The homecoming dance will be canceled, but there will still be a homecoming court. Dr. Laager is working to make sure the parents of the students on the court can be present, and he plans to have the event streamed as well. There also will be dress-up days during the week leading up to homecoming.
As far as football games go, currently, spectators can only be in the stands with a pass from one of the football players. Each player is given two passes to hand out. The school board discussed coming up with ideas to make sure seniors can go see a game this year, perhaps including a raffle of some sort. For now though, spectators are able to watch the football games through the fences without a ticket. School Liaison Officers will be patrolling the area to ensure people are wearing masks and social distancing.
As some fall sports come to a close, the district is also trying to figure out a safe way to hold banquets. They will not look like a typical banquet, but Dr. Laager said it’s possible teams could hold a safe ceremony outside.
Looking ahead, Dr. Laager expects all winter sports will be on, with a reduction in the number of games played.