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Schools navigate Covid shifts

After seeing Covid-19 cases climb precipitously this month, Wrenshall school district officials sent students an early Christmas present — letting kids out of school five days early — in hopes of getting people well.

Superintendent Kim Belcastro said the early vacation was in response to rising Covid numbers, but even more about difficulties finding substitute teachers for sick teachers, including several who were fully vaccinated.

Finding a balance between keeping students safe and giving them the best possible educational experience has been a teeter-totter ride during the nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Not only do school officials have to take care of sick students and staff and deal with parents who oppose masking, they can’t require that students or staff be vaccinated, which public health officials assert is the best way to prevent serious illness.

“It’s been an extremely challenging time because you have parents and guardians who are very comfortable with vaccinations while some are not,” Belcastro said. “It creates quite a dilemma making sure we can keep people safe at school.”

It’s been a struggle, agreed Moose Lake superintendent Billie Jo Steen. Her preK-12 school has seen more than 10 percent of students and staff out due to positive Covid tests this school year. Varsity football, junior high volleyball and now girls basketball seasons have all been impacted for shorter periods of time (but not canceled) due to Covid.

Still, there are bright spots, Steen said. Quarantine times are down “primarily due to vaccines and masks,” she said. And they’ve been able to stay at school in-person for learning.

“We are really trying to keep our students in school and limit the spread as much as we can so we do not have to have periods of distance learning which are so hard on students and families,” Steen said.

In the beginning

When the disease first hit Minnesota in March 2020, schools and businesses were shut down in short order, before there were many cases, in the hopes of stopping the spread and giving hospitals time to prepare. While it helped keep students and teachers from getting sick, many students — particularly those not old enough to handle independent study — did not thrive. Lots of students of all ages lost ground academically, mentally and/or socially.

The 2020-21 school year was better, less panicked, a little more fine-tuned. Most schools opened with in-person classes and with sports and extracurricular activities shortened, but were mostly back on the table.

Then, a little over a year after the pandemic began, vaccines became widely available to adults and many hoped Covid would go away once the world achieved herd immunity.

That hasn’t happened yet. Instead, the virus has mutated and many people have not gotten vaccinated. For now, the world knows vaccination doesn’t guarantee immunity from Covid-19 — breakthrough cases number more than 2 percent now — but it does mostly eliminate the risk of hospitalization or death from the disease for those who are otherwise healthy.

Vaccines certainly helped the schools. The vast majority of school staff across the area were vaccinated early, and now a lesser portion of students are also vaccinated.

Local control

Now in their third school year affected by the global pandemic, Minnesota schools found themselves with fewer Covid rules this year. Instead they were offered “suggested guidelines” by the Centers for Disease Control, MDH and local public health officials. No more would Gov. Tim Walz dictate local school district policy: it was up to the local school board.

School Board members did not make identical choices at the school districts across Carlton County.

In Wrenshall and Cromwell-Wright schools, masks have mostly been optional for students and staff. In Cloquet, Carlton and Fond du Lac, board members have mandated that all staff and students wear masks during the school day since at least the beginning of the school year. Esko and Barnum have occupied the middle ground, with masks required for elementary school students who were only recently eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, but only “strongly encouraged” for students in grades 7-12.

Did those choices have consequences? The Pine Knot News reached out to area school districts recently, and the responses reveal not only different Covid protocols, but also different ways of tracking (or not) Covid illness and quarantine numbers. Which means comparisons are apples-to-apples in some cases, but not all.

“It is safe to say that we’ve had more confirmed Covid cases this year than we had all of last year,” Carlton superintendent John Engstrom told the Pine Knot earlier this month.

The easiest place to see consequences has been activities, since most area schools have stayed with in-person classes. The cooperative Carlton/Wrenshall Raptors football team canceled more games than it played and didn’t make the playoffs, thanks to Covid cases or exposures and not enough players to spare. The Fond du Lac Ojibwe girls volleyball team played one game before its season ended due to Covid concerns, despite much stricter masking and overall Covid policies. And Cloquet has not canceled or postponed any programs or activities due to Covid for the 2021-22 school year, superintendent Michael Cary said. Meanwhile, nearby Floodwood went to distance learning starting Dec. 13 due to increased Covid cases.

Belcastro said Wrenshall reached the point where 5 percent of its staff and students tested positive over a 14-day period, which triggered a full masking mandate for staff and students.

“We did that and we thought it would help, but we kept getting more people testing positive,” she said. “And that led to the issue of not having enough substitute teachers.”

The actual numbers of sick or quarantined students are less clear because not all schools are reporting those.

According to the school district website on Tuesday, Dec. 21, Cloquet schools have seen a total of 127 cases in students and staff this school year, with zero new cases reported Tuesday or Wednesday. Cloquet doesn’t track staff absences connected to specific illnesses, superintendent Michael Cary said.

Barnum has only daily Covid counts listed on its website, not cumulative, and reported two new cases on Wednesday and three active cases total.

Esko’s Aaron Fischer said the district has not been tracking “which virus” kids or staff are out sick with, but he said he didn’t think absentee numbers were much different than previous years.

“I do know that kids and staff with Covid miss on average more days of school than students that are out with other types of illnesses,” he said. The Esko school district does not have a running count of Covid cases available on its website this school year.

Administrators at the Fond du Lac Ojibwe school appeared to have the best grasp of the numbers. So far this school year, a total of 28 students have tested positive and were required to quarantine for 14 days at Fond du Lac, with some missing even more days due to being sick. Two staff members got sick: one was out for 14 days; the other missed work for more than a month due to the illness. In total, 82 students have had to quarantine this school year due to close contact with someone who was sick, according to school officials, who worked together to answer questions.

Do mask mandates make a difference? The CDC says they do, in two published studies, including one that found the average change in pediatric Covid-19 case rates was lower among counties with school mask requirements (16.32 per 100,000/day) compared with counties without school mask requirements (34.85 cases per 100,000/day).

Cloquet staff members have also weighed in, in favor of masks. Results from a survey sent out by the teacher unit in Cloquet to teachers, paraprofessionals and secretaries indicated that 80 percent support the current policy of mandated masking for staff and students in all grades. A followup question about optional masking got 40 percent in support and 60 percent not in support, according to superintendent Michael Cary.

Does it matter what kind of mask? Certainly surgical masks and N95 masks are better than cloth, but cloth is better than nothing, experts say, although how much better depends on the cloth and the user wearing the mask correctly.

Cary said he struggles with the conflicting information on masking, and would like to see information assessing the risk of moderate to severe disease from Covid-19 — “because that’s really what we’re concerned about,” he said — compared to other known risk factors that people live with on a daily basis.

Vaccination rates

While masking policies are one tool a school can use to minimize risk of Covid-19 transmission, vaccinations are the gold standard, according to the majority of health officials.

In the United States, the first Covid-19 vaccines were approved for adults, ages 18 and older.

In May 2021, a Covid vaccine was approved for adolescents ages 12-17. Five months later, on Oct. 29, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for children 5 through 11 years of age.

Still, like masking mandates, vaccination rates differ across the county. The Pine Knot News requested and recently obtained vaccination rates for children ages 5-17 from the Minnesota Department of Health. The rates varied wildly, from a remarkably high (and possibly mistaken) 99 percent of kids ages 12-17 in the Esko zip code, versus 36 percent in the Cromwell (55726) zip code at the low end.

Here’s how Carlton County measured up for kids with one or more vaccination doses as of Dec. 13:

Barnum (55707) ages 12-17: 60.78 percent; ages 5-12: 20.61 percent

Carlton (55718) ages 12-17: 53.73 percent; ages 5-12: 31.88 percent

Cloquet (55720) ages 12-17: 57.72 percent; ages 5-12: 24.06 percent

Cromwell (55726) ages 12-17: 36.49 percent; ages 5-12: 8.54 percent

Esko (55733) ages 12-17: 99.48 percent; ages 5-12: 24.55 percent

Moose Lake (55767) ages 12-17: 69.36 percent; ages 5-12: 15.84 percent

Wrenshall (55797) ages 12-17: 52.03 percent; ages 5-12: 20.89 percent

Overall in Carlton County, 65 percent of the population is vaccinated, with the highest percentage among the elderly, who are also must vulnerable.

A recent message from area healthcare organizations pleaded with people to do what they can to minimize virus spread, most importantly by getting vaccinations or booster shots along with wearing masks and getting tested.

“We are in a crisis situation and so much of this is preventable if people get vaccinated and follow the preventative steps they’ve heard so many times,” said Amy Westbrook, St. Louis County public health division director. “For those who are vaccinated, please get a booster. Boosters can significantly increase your protection against serious illness with Covid-19.”

Meanwhile, schools are out for Christmas break, and infection levels when they return in the new year are unknown as the Covid-19 Omicron variant becomes the dominant strain in the U.S. and Minnesota.

“None of this is easy, and we’re all tired and want to be done with this,” Westbrook said. “But as long as we’re dealing with a highly contagious virus, we need everyone’s cooperation to move past this.”

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