Park Rapids Superintendent Lance Bagstad responded Thursday to questions and concerns from the community about how the school is dealing with the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.

As of Thursday, Bagstad said, there were five active staff cases and 17 active student cases of the virus. According to the school’s website, that’s a rate of 0.01% of a total of 318 staff and 0.001% of 1,694 students. Actually, it's 1.59 percent of staff and 1 percent of students.

He said approximately 30 staff or students are currently quarantining at home, including people who are symptomatic and awaiting test results and those with other illnesses.

COVID dashboard and task force

Bagstad pointed out that the COVID dashboard is back at www.parkrapids.k12.mn.us, toward the bottom of the homepage. He also confirmed that the district does have a COVID team, which met on Thursday and made recommendations.

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“We are doing some changes,” he said. “We’re looking at our procedures” – including food service, traffic within school buildings, separating grade cohorts, and hygiene practices such as hand washing, hand sanitizer, wiping surfaces between classes and using ionizers on buses.

In addition, he said, they’re going to encourage students to bring their own water jugs and leave jug dispensers working, while shutting off drinking fountains.

He said the team told him that during this week last year, the schools had “a whole lot more” positive cases and 147 staff or students in quarantine.

“We have things under control right now,” he said, “well under where we were last year at this time.”

Positive cases staying home

“We have lots of just illness, like everybody else,” said Bagstad. “It’s not all COVID related.”

People who are sick are choosing to stay home, he said, “which is best for everyone.”

He said he is not aware of asymptomatic, COVID-positive people attending school.

“If they test positive, they need to stay home,” he said, adding, “We can only have so much control. We are required to report positive cases. So, that’s what we do. We make it clear that parents need to let us know if their kids are positive, and staff, and then we have to report that.”

Watching for signs of sickness

Asked for his opinion of younger students’ alertness to signs of COVID-19 and prevention practices, Bagstad said, “We work hard, and in fact, our elementary has continued to use these measures. … They’ve been doing the cleaning. They’ve been doing the hand washing. They’ve been doing the distancing.

“When students are symptomatic, the first thing we do is a self-health check. We want our families to make sure that they do the self-health check before they go out the door.”

And if they’re showing signs of sickness, their advice is to stay home.

If symptoms begin during the school day, Bagstad said, staff are on heightened alert to notice a student starting to cough, sneeze or have a runny nose and to get them checked out in the nurse’s office.

“Our nurses do a wonderful job of assessing the situation and calling the parents,” he said. “A lot of students have been sent home.”

Communication

When a positive case is reported, he said, “we do send out notification of close contact to folks. We don’t know who’s immunocompromised, who’s vaccinated, not vaccinated. So, all we do is notify.”

He said that if parents are contacted about a close contact, it’s up to them to make a decision whether to quarantine; but if someone tests positive, they need to quarantine.

He was unable to recall the current number of close contacts at the school.

Monitoring compliance

When families report a positive case of COVID-19, Bagstad said, “We are asking families to make the best decisions in quarantining to protect the health of others.”

He said they have had “good success” discussing the need to self-isolate after a close contact exposure and to quarantine when sick.

“Families care about others as well,” he said, “so they want to make good decisions, too. We haven’t run into any real issues with that” – that is, coming to school after testing positive.

“If we had a positive student show up to school, they would have to go home,” said Bagstad. “So, for example, if we had a student that we were told is positive, and then they showed up, we would isolate them and make sure they get home.”

Decision threshold

Asked at what threshold the school would have to change its learning model, Bagstad said, “Any decision that’s made, since it’s back to local control, will be made at the board level.”

He said there isn’t a preset threshold, but it will likely be determined by whether they can staff the classrooms or by the numbers of sick people. “Staffing is key,” he said. “If we do not have the staffing capabilities, then we’re gonna have to look at doing something different.”

He said an emergency school board meeting may be called to make that decision, if the time comes.

“I’m hoping we hit the plateau here and that things start to settle down,” he said. “We’re always gonna keep these mitigation strategies in the forefront, because safety and security is what’s important for students and staff and our families.”

Mitigation measures

Bagstad said the district’s COVID team will discuss ramping up the district’s layered mitigation practices, such as hand washing, social distancing and disinfecting classrooms.

“We’re being more conscientious about spaces and hygiene,” he said. “We need to keep our environment clean for our kids. Again, our staff is doing the best we can, and we could use more help.”

Bagstad said he is pleased with how staff and families are dealing with a less-than-ideal situation. He advised families that have questions to call in and ask.

“We are gonna have illness,” he said. “So, there will be mitigation. There will be letters going home to folks who are in close contact. Hopefully, we can together move forward and beat COVID.”

Staffing issues

Bagstad said that despite their staffing issues, the Park Rapids Schools are doing all they can to maintain as normal a schedule as possible.

“We’re not in a best-case scenario,” he added. “We’re always in need of help. We need it everywhere, with our community needing help to do business, and we could use more subs. We’re still looking for one para, I believe; one custodian; and we could always use bus drivers.”

He said the school administration starts every school day discussing how everyone is doing and whether they have enough staff.

“You do need to prepare,” he said. “We always said, you need to be ready. If we need to change learning models, be ready.”