Cotter Schools updated its COVID mitigation strategies this week to include universal masking in response to an uptick in cases.

School leaders implemented the masking requirement due to a substantial uptick last week in cases among students and staff, the Omicron variant’s high transmission rate and the school’s human resources staff having restricted capacity to review every home and on-campus case and close contact, a letter from Cotter leaders to families on January 9 said. 

That uptick in cases included 19 new cases for grades five through 12, five for grades one through four and eight for those sixteen months to six years old, according to Cotter’s COVID dashboard. As of December 12, Cotter had 42 cases for grades five through 12 since August 23, and that increased over one and a half times to 70 as of January 9. For grades one through four, the increase was smaller, from 28 cases since August 23 as of December 12 to 33 as of January 9. There was also a larger uptick for those sixteen months to six years, from 9 cases since August 23 as of December 12 to almost double that at 17 since August 23 as of January 9. Cotter has about 1,000 students within its whole system. 

Cotter is not alone in experiencing an increase in cases. Winona Area Public Schools reported 61 new cases between December 16 and 22 and 40 between December 23 and January 5, representing the two highest numbers of positive cases since the school year began. WAPS has about 3,000 students and staff, meaning their case rates are out of a larger number than Cotter’s. 

“Our continued goal really is just to try to keep a safe and healthy environment for our students and community,” Cotter President Mary Eileen Fitch said, adding that another goal is keeping students learning in person. Factors such as case rates in the school and community may be considered as the policy is reevaluated in several weeks, she said. 

From January 10 through 29, all kindergarten through 12th grade students, staff and visitors will need to wear a mask in school buildings during the school day, according to the letter. The policy will be reevaluated after those three weeks. 

Additionally, according to Cotter’s website, those attending indoor athletic events will wear masks, while players may not wear masks during games and practices. 

Previously, masks were optional for students at the seventh through 12th grade level and required at the kindergarten through sixth grade level. 

Cotter’s isolation and quarantine guidelines will also match the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent guidance, according to the letter, with the exception of preschool and Educare, which will follow Minnesota Department of Health and Department of Human Services guidance. Under the CDC-aligned guidelines, those who test positive will isolate for five days, then wear masks consistently in public for five days, and those who are close contacts will quarantine for five days or take a rapid test at home. According to the website, students who come back after a five day isolation or quarantine will have a different spot to eat. 

Cotter will still contact trace “as much as possible,” according to the letter.