by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Area school leaders are urging community members to follow COVID-19 guidelines over the holidays to help ensure enough staff members are healthy and able to work in-person as the new year begins.
With the most recent state guidance allowing elementary schools to return to hybrid or in-person learning on January 18 as long as they can put certain COVID precautions in place — regardless of the county case rate — districts still need a sufficient number of staff members to be out of quarantine or isolation to keep schools operating in person.
Districts also still have to consider the county case rate when deciding which learning model to have in place at the middle and high school levels, meaning a county case rate must be below 30 to implement hybrid learning for middle and high school students. As the most up-to-date unofficial 14-day case rate stands at 38, Winona County has not yet reached that threshold.
“Our holiday wish this year is to keep our students back in school after the new year safely,” superintendents and leaders at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS), Bluffview Montessori, Riverway Learning Community, the Lewiston-Altura School District, the St. Charles School District, Ridgeway Community School and Cotter Schools wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “While we are doing everything possible to create a safe environment for our students to thrive and learn, we can’t do this alone. With the vaccine around the corner, this is not the time for us to give up. If you are choosing to gather with others outside of your home, we are asking that you please reconsider your plans. If you still choose to gather with those outside of your home, please do so in a safe manner. Wear your mask, keep your six feet of distance, try to get creative in finding ways to keep yourself safe.”
State guidance currently says that a maximum of 10 people from two households may meet indoors. Outside, a maximum of 15 people from three households may meet. The guidance strongly encourages those who gather to wear a mask and states that social distancing must take place.
Lewiston-Altura Superintendent Gwen Carman said that during the fall semester, staff members and students were following COVID-19 protocols, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, and they were not contracting the coronavirus in the district’s buildings or on its buses. Staff members and students were exposed to COVID-19 outside of school, she said, which led to individuals needing to quarantine or isolate. In turn, she said, the district experienced challenges with staffing, or having enough staff members to keep schools running in-person.
“So what we need to keep students in classrooms is for students and staff to not contract COVID-19 or be exposed to it outside of school,” Carman shared. “To do that, we need all students and staff members to continue to wear a mask and social distance, frequent hand washing. Particularly the challenge is not gathering in large social groups, which, unfortunately, we know has implications for the holiday season for everyone. But if we want to keep students in classrooms, we need everyone’s cooperation with that.”
Galesville-Ettrick-Trempealeau (G-E-T) School District leaders were very concerned prior to Thanksgiving, District Administrator Michele Butler said, as the district had faced a substantial rise in cases following Halloween. After Thanksgiving, the increase in cases was not as high as predicted, Butler stated, but the rise was still significant enough to impact the district’s ability to have a sufficient number of staff members working in-person. The district has similar concerns about a post-holiday rise in cases, Butler noted, and families following COVID guidelines would contribute to that potential increase staying as small as possible.
“We’d expect some spike, but if people practice careful, safe habits during this time … chances are pretty good we’ll be able to come back when we want to,” Butler said. “We’re hoping to come back January 4. The only way we can come back is if we have case numbers down. We need enough people here to run the school.”
Community members following COVID guidelines would help the district sustain proper staffing levels for operating schools in person, WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit said.
“With the new guidance that came out, too, the ability to do saliva testing will help,” Freiheit added, referring to the state providing saliva testing kits to districts so they can offer tests to staff members every other week starting January 4.
Cotter Schools President Judith Schaefer said school leaders have heard that families want their children in school, and the leaders wanted to remind them that how families decide to celebrate the holidays will affect schools’ ability to run in person.
“The choices they make over the … holidays — whether it’s traveling, getting together with families, having small parties — all of those will impact whether the coronavirus is emerging a week later in schools,” Schaefer noted.
Carman shared that her message for families who want to celebrate the holidays with others in person would be that there is a high level of COVID-19 transmission at group gatherings, and increased spread of the coronavirus would impact the district’s ability to operate in person.
“And that is what then ultimately will impact whether or not we’re able to sustain having students in classrooms with our staff,” Carman stated.
Students benefit when they are able to learn in the classroom, Carman said.
“We know most students will do better academically, as well as with their mental health, if they have the structure of a school day, as well as the benefit of the face-to-face interactions with school staff and peers,” Carman shared.
To families who want to spend the holidays with others in person, Schaefer noted that she would say, “If you want your child to have the possibility of being in person with their friends and their teacher, make choices that do not facilitate the spread of COVID-19. So don’t gather, wear a mask, wash your hands, social distance. Those are specific choices that they can make.”
“As hard as it may be, please make choices that will enable us to make the choice to have kids back in the classroom,” she continued.