At Monday night’s Nevis School Board meeting, parents questioned the decision made by the school’s COVID team to keep elementary students in a hybrid model and high school students in distance learning.
Parent Karrin Lindow addressed the board during the public comments section of the meeting, which led to a discussion on the impacts of COVID-19 on students, staff and the community that lasted over an hour.
“I don’t feel we’re moving fast enough at getting our students back in the school,” she told the board. “Screen time right now with our kids is out of control.”
Lindow quoted from articles on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website that show when kids are not in school it impacts their social, emotional and behavioral health as well as their academic achievement and disproportionately harms low income and minority students and those with disabilities.
“In-person learning is in the best interest of the students,” she said. “Extended school closure is harmful to children. For 25 days, we’ve been quarantined. Everything I’ve found online says 14 days. We have 180 active cases in Hubbard County. That’s .84 percent of the population. I feel like the virus is here to stay. We just need to learn how to deal with it and have the choice for kids to go to school. Parents who don’t want that can keep their kids home distance learning.”
Lindow said that, according to the CDC, COVID-19 poses relatively low health risks for school-age children compared to adults and that children are not primary drivers of cases in the community.
“Everybody’s willing to put the effort in to get things going. I think there are over 500 healthy students at Nevis School who need us to open. They need to be active in sports, in robotics, on the playground. Extracurricular activities need to start now,” she said.
Lindow ended her speech in tears. “One parent emailed me and said our children are suffering,” she said. “This is serious. I don’t know how long we can wait. The kids need to be in school.”
Superintendent Gregg Parks said, in addition to parents expressing concerns, many others are commending the district for the path they chose.
“It obviously is a very contentious issue,” he said. “We know that the best method is having a teacher in front of the classroom interacting with those kids. Distance learning is a tool to try and bridge the gap between when we can be in school and when we cannot.”
Tsunami of COVID-19
Parks reiterated the “Back to Learn” plan that was put together by teachers, administrators and board members involved changing learning methods based on cases in the school and county.
“We started the year in person, but when we experienced our first cases of COVID it was a tsunami that overwhelmed our ability to react to it,” he said. “We were extremely stressed on those days when we had to call over 90 parents and let them know of close contacts (their child had with a positive case) in the school.”
When data showed Nevis School had more cases of COVID than five other districts combined, Parks said he felt they had to do something to gain control of the situation.
“Since we put those measures into place, one person on the elementary side was quarantined but did not test positive and three high school students tested positive, but due to distance learning, had not been inside the school,” he said. “As of Oct. 27, we have had two weeks with no positive cases. It was a very painful decision. I’ve had all kinds of people accuse me of not loving sports. That couldn’t be further from the truth. It wasn’t a capricious, off-the-cuff decision not to have sports for two weeks. It was an answer to how to gain control and assure kids are safe here.”
Parks explained that open-enrolled students come from as many as five districts. “Every single one of them had cases of COVID,” he said.
Board chair Andy Lindow pointed out that the group that gives input into the COVID decisions has a coach and parents on it.
Making tough decisions
“I felt at first when we made the decision that the community really was attacking us,” Andy Lindow said. “I almost felt like I needed to attack back to defend the decisions. That’s not what we should be doing at all. It shouldn’t be us against them. It should be why we’re doing it and if it seems reasonable and prudent. I’ve had just as many people who are indifferent to distance learning or very pleased and happy as those who are saying we should be in school. There are many kids who are doing just fine while others are struggling. Kids usually will follow the lead of the parents. If the parents get anxious, kids have a tendency to be anxious. If parents are more accepting and going with the flow then kids will be more accepting. The best thing we can do is get information from both sides and take an open-minded approach, be on the same page and work together. I see kids that are on screens for hours a day on their phone by their own choosing Instagram, TikTok, Snapchat. When they’re online for school, maybe that’s the time to dial back some of their other social media.”
“This isn’t going to be the first or last time we have this conversation about learning models for the school during the course of the year,” Parks said. “I don’t think our committee should feel threatened every time we have to make a decision.”
Step up masking
Board member Ed Becker joined the Zoom call from California where he was on vacation. He contrasted what he has seen on his trip with what he sees in Hubbard County.
“Everybody has been wearing masks, even outside here in California,” he said. “They even wear them if they’re the only person in the car. People are really digging into this and doing things to protect themselves. I think we can step it up a little bit and help the situation.”
Becker said staff have done a great job of keeping COVID from spreading within the school.
“My concern is that when we get back in school any little trigger will bring them back to distance learning,” he said. “We’re in the flu season, so I think numbers are going to stay high into the spring. I hope the team can look at it in totality so when we go back we can stay back.”
“I don’t go out very often, but when I do I see people without masks and close together,” board member Gary Stennes said. “As a community, if you want to go back to normal then you need to follow the guidelines. The schools are doing everything they can. We have to keep in mind that COVID is the enemy, not each other. We’ve got to work together to fight COVID any way we can. It’s a very difficult situation.”
Working together to slow the spread
Board member Justin Isaacson said he is very passionate about getting his children back in the school building.
“I respect Dr. Parks’ decision on keeping our building safe,” he said. “It’s a tough spot to be in. It’s going to take a concerted effort from everybody in the community to get as close to back to normal as possible. That means having personal responsibility. Wearing a mask, washing your hands, keeping your hands out of your face and keeping your distance. Dr. Parks is committed to getting us back to the in-person learning model.”
Isaacson suggested the district look into indoor air quality and microbial mitigation systems as well.
He said, “We all have that same wish and hope and need to do everything we can to make it possible. I feel for the younger generation who are missing out on so much. We didn’t sign up for this, but we’re in it together and that’s the way we need to approach it – work at it together and reach the final goal to get our kids back in this building. And when they are back in the building, do everything we can to keep our community COVID free.”
Andy Lindow said one parent referred to COVID as “our World War II moment.” “Life has changed and this is a time when we are making changes until we can get through it,” he said.
Family and community gatherings have been identified as contributing factors to the spread of COVID-19. With deer hunting season less than a week away, board member Larry Smith said there may be more family get-togethers.
“That could mean numbers go up again,” he said.
Deciding when in-person learning is safe
Parks explained that a little leeway came from the state last Thursday on which learning model they are in based on school data.
“Up until that point, the models for kids were based on metrics in the counties,” he said. “We’re going to continue to stand strong and make well-informed decisions.”
Principal Brian Michaelson said decisions are based on both positive cases in both students and staff.
Lindow said it is very difficult for the district to find subs teachers who are exposed and need to quarantine for 14 days.
Parks said when both fourth grade teachers were quarantined the entire class had to go to online learning during that time period.
“It’s not an easy decision,” he said. “It’s easy to Monday morning quarterback but it is a very difficult process. The committee works hard to establish the decision. And although we have zero positive cases right now that may not be the actual number of positive cases tomorrow. It’s constantly evolving and is a matter of evaluating by grade level and building site. Numbers are trending downwards and we believe we can make some changes in the next week.”
“If everybody got it (COVID) and got done with it we could get back to normal,” Karrin Lindow said.
“I made that comment earlier today, let’s have a COVID party and get everybody sick,” Isaacson said.
School nurse Jenny Rittgers said immunity is not guaranteed to last. “The CDC states reinfection hasn’t occurred before 90 days and once people test positive they are exempt from quarantine for that 90 day period.” she said after the meeting.
Andy Lindow said because of distance learning some students may be sick and not get tested.
Rittgers said the school’s mitigation strategies that include a self-assessment and temperature check before students come to school have been successful.
“Let’s reap the benefits of our diligence,” Isaacson said. “Let’s get our kids back in the building.”
“So far there’s no date on when our kids are coming back to school,” Karrin Lindow said. “We’re down to zero (positive cases). How much lower can we go?”
“I don’t think that’s true, Karrin,” Parks said, adding he believes students will be back in school in a relatively short period of time.
“So we’re coming back Nov. 2?” Karrin asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Parks replied. “The last bulletin stated Nov. 2 as being an opportunity to come back. It’s a target date. Have faith in us. It’s a learning process and this is a group of people who are doing the best they can.”
Options for parents and students
Parks said the district and teachers are doing all they can to make distance learning viable.
“Every kid that needs a device has a device and every kid who needs a Wifi hotspot has one,” he said.
Parks said he asked teachers to identify students who are overly anxious or sad or not performing up to their usual standards so mental health services can be offered. “That number is not very large,” he said.
Parks emphasized that children with I.E.Ps as well as kids at risk of dropping out or not graduating can receive assistance in person or on Zoom with a paraprofessional even during distance and hybrid learning.