Alert Chart

The Vermillion School District moved from a yellow (moderate) to an orange (heightened) level of COVID-19 alert Friday, Nov. 13, following risk assessments completed that day.

There was concern late last week that rising COVID-19 positive cases would force the Vermillion School District to switch to online learning in the two days prior to the beginning of the Thanksgiving break which begins Nov. 25.

The Vermillion School Board heard good news during a special meeting Monday morning, however. COVID-19 numbers are showing a decline in the district.

That allowed the board to focus on limiting or eliminating the live viewing of extra-curricular activities, offering an online video stream or recordings of concerts and sporting events instead for spectators.

After lengthy discussion, it eventually approved a motion instructing school administrators to seek a “virtual solution” that would allow students to continue to practice and perform extra-curricular activities while limiting or prohibiting audience and spectator numbers in gymnasiums and the auditorium.

Youth sports programs and travel teams will be asked to hold off on future practices until Dec 1 when the school board will re-evaluate the situation.

The board’s motion promotes more virtual and live streamed events the next two weeks, including the middle school basketball games this week and the show choir concert this weekend.

The concert will be live streamed with senior parents only allowed in attendance.

“Since our last meeting, we have moved to level orange and that’s basically the next step of increased awareness. It allows us to further scrutinize visitors to the district, consider an alternative calendar talking about activities or anything that might need to be changed and what brought us to that point is over the course of the last two weeks, we’ve consistently been having eight, 10, 12 kids or staff with positive COVID and out of school, along with some increased numbers of close contact quarantined kids,” Superintendent Damon Alvey said at the beginning of Monday’s meeting. “Last week, we had a consistent few days where we were at 15 staff or students that were out with COVID-related symptoms. After that rise in our state, community and, of course, even in our own setting, we decided to move to orange and go to the next level of mitigation.”

The next step, he said, was for school administratorst to take time to consider whether schedule changes may be needed this week that would need to be approved by the school board.

Up-To-Date Snapshot

Alvey said School Nurse Amy Askew received calls late last week and over the weekend that give a more up-to-date snapshot of the number of COVID-19 cases in the school district.

“It looks like as of this morning (Monday), we have 13 cases. We’ve gone down some and we have a handful of kids and staff who are able to return today,” he said. “So quite honestly, our numbers look better today than they did last week, which is great news. We just want to make sure we are continuing the mitigation efforts and making good decisions at the point.

“Really, our discussion today is we wanted to update the board on numbers, let the board know that we are on level orange for the foreseeable future and consider what we want to do in the long-term for the next week or two, the superintendent said.

Alvey said of the 13 cases, five were staff members. Askew added that two staff would be returning to school on Monday and five staff members would be staying home that day.

“How are we doing with regard to subs and I’m also interested in where we’re at with in-school and out-of-school quarantines?” Carol Voss-Ward, school board member, asked.

“The substitutes have been running lean,” Alvey said. “Fortunately, we have student teachers in the building. We have dedicated, healthy subs who are available, but I think on a given day, principals are looking for subs. I don’t know if there are periods of time when we haven’t been able to fill all of our positions.”

“I typically get the same one or two subs that are able to (teach),” said Sam Jacobs, principal of Jolley Elementary School. “The only issue is that Kim (Johnson, the principal of Austin Elementary) and I, typically, are dealing with first come, first serve between the two buildings that are willing to work on the elementary level.

“I’m just fortunate that I’ve got a couple of really good student teachers right now that are able to step into those roles,” he said. “The bad part is I’ll be losing two of them here in the next couple weeks that are my rock star student teachers. I don’t know if they’re going to be leaving town or not.”

Finding an adequate number of student teachers “has been manageable up to this point,” Jacobs said, “but I do have two staff members who are out right now. I’ve got a third one who I’m pretty sure is going to test positive because her kid tested positive and she’s starting to show symptoms now.”

One teacher who was planning to come back this week and work half-days also likely will be sent home by the principal. “She had developed pneumonia, as well, and she has been out for a long time. She feels bad,” he said.

For all of last week, student absences at Jolley Elementary numbered in the 50s.

“That, historically, is a pretty significant number,” Jacobs said. “During the year, the most I might ever have is 38 and that’s with 365 kids in the building and now I have 290 in the building.”

It’s difficult to know how many of the student absences are due to COVID-19, he added.

“Some of the parents aren’nt being honest with us,” the principal said. “We’ve had some parents that have tested positive and still send their kids and we hear about it second-hand and it gets kind of tricky. We have to try to get a hold of them and say ‘We know you tested positive; your kid has to be quarantined.’”

Students In Quarantine

Alvey said last week there were approximately 150 kids in the district who were either in-school quarantined or out-of-school quarantined.

“It seemed like last week was pretty consistent (with those numbers),” Askew said. “I think the high school and middle school were running about 30 of out of school to maybe about 20 of in school (in terms of quarantine.) Definitely, the numbers are consistently in the 50s or higher. It’s just for some instances, we’re able to have those kids in school. Austin School did have some in-school kids, too, but the majority of kids’ families that we’ve contacted about in-school (quarantine) did choose to keep their kids at home.”

Alvey said that contact tracing is showing that many of the kids who have tested positive or require to be quarantined are connected through outside-of-school activities.

“Those students that we’re sending home typically happen to be at the lunch recess or lunchtime when they don’t have their masks on, so that does cause us some concern,” he said. “We’ve considered maybe changing our lunch programs. Maybe at the elementaries, do some lunches in the classrooms or doing something different there as part of our orange (alert) program.

“Our protocols with orange allow us to do more restrictive things with the lunch program, so that’s a consideration we could make, but right now our transmission rate in the school positivity has been very, very slim so that’s promising,” Alvey said.

“The transmission in the schools is also very difficult to prove or not prove,” Askew said, “because we have definitely had some close contacts of people who have been in a masked situation that did then become ill. Can we prove that that was because of that double-masked close contact? We can’t prove that but we also can’t disprove that this could potentially be happening.

“Now whether that’s the fault of the mask, the fault of the mask wearer or if they just happen to come into contact at different locations at the same time – it’s hard to prove that stuff but we can’t completely rule it out, either,” she said.

The board’s attention turned to whether the district should end in-school classes a couple days earlier than planned just before the Thanksgiving break begins on Nov. 25, and instead teach classes those two days remotely, with all students remaining at home.

“One of the considerations that we had thrown out as an administrative team is will we see a spike around the Thanksgiving holiday? Will it be good to be proactive and try to send students home prior?” Alvey said. “We had good discussion on that and this is a good place for the board to give us your opinion.

“We thought about the idea about not having school on the two days prior to Thanksgiving and that gives us a week-long hiatus from having anybody in school,” he said. “But in going remote, we’d still have our staff still come into school to report to work, so we tried to balance if that would be an appropriate response. Now that we’ve had some relief in our numbers, that gives me a little bit of pause about exiting school. We do know if we send students home, we have no control over their activities and their exposure risk. In one sense, they’re probably safer in school with masks than they are maybe outside of the school setting where we don’t have control.”

Keeping Kids In School

Board members agreed with that observation.

“I think keeping the kids in school is what’s needed … to not really go remote, but to keep our kids in school and keep them safe,” Rachel Olson, school board member, said.

“I’m keep coming back to if we were going to go remote and what I think we hear from the community a lot is everybody cares about their child’s education and in our minds that is the most important thing,” Tim Schwasinger, school board member, said. “What we tend to get a lot of feedback on then are the activities.

“If we were going to go to remote or not have school, it’s not safe enough there to have education. My feeling is then it’s not safe enough there to have activities,” he said. “My thought process is to continue having the kids in the buildings where we can have the most control – I don’t mean that in a bad way – but control over keeping that mask on and everything if for the best and it’s about as normal as we can get so we can continue to offer the extra-curricular things.”

“I’m of the same mind,” Voss-Ward said. “I feel that we have the supervision and the mitigation strategies in place. School is a good place for them to be and I’m assuming that teachers are doing this already, but any small tasks that might be incorporated into what they’re doing that might prepare students to go remote … if there’s anything that can be piecemeal incorporated, I think that maybe that would be a better strategy rather than sending them home for a long period of time. That seems riskier to me, I guess.”

She noted that students were eased back into activities during the summer with co-horting and conditioning.

“Certainly, if we’re thinking of activities and limiting some of those, we can go back to some of those activities, as well,” Voss-Ward said. “I don’t know if that’s appropriate now, but those seem to be useful ways to have students participating in things but maybe at less risk.”

Alvey said the district will continue to communicate to students that practicing mitigation will help lengthen the school year and help make sports seasons and other extra-curricular activities possible.

“I think our goal needs to be keeping students in school as long as we can and hopefully every day that we’re scheduled to be in school,” said Doug Peterson, school board president.

The district should first focus on doing things such as taking more precautions at lunchtimes or restricting some activities before considering going to online learning with empty classrooms.

“I think (online teaching) needs to be a last resort, not an intermediate step,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen after Thanksgiving and I don’t know that a test run (of online teaching) really helps us.”

After lengthy discussion, it eventually approved a motion instructing school administrators to seek a “virtual solution” that would allow students to continue to practice and perform extra-curricular activities while limiting or prohibiting audience and spectator numbers in gymnasiums and the auditorium.

Youth sports programs and travel teams will be asked to hold off on future practices until Dec. 1 when the school board will re-evaluate the situation.

The board’s motion promotes more virtual and live streamed events the next two weeks, including the middle school basketball games this week and the show choir concert this weekend.

The concert will be live streamed with senior parents only allowed in attendance.

Discussion of the vocal music activities scheduled for Friday and Saturday in the Thomas H. Craig Center for Performing Arts led to the board considering such restrictions of crowds that normally would be present at extra-curricular activities.

The board learned there could be an audience of up to 200 people at the concert.

“Two hundred seems plenty,” Doug Peterson, school board president, said, reluctantly. “I know what the university is doing and in an auditorium of that size, they’d have about 60 seats. I’m not saying USD has it right, but my biggest concern with any of these things … I think limiting attendance of adults is a good step. I’m not sure it’s enough, I’m sorry to be a little pessimistic about that … but it’s the collection of students that gather.”

The fall show, for example, may have up to 300 high school or middle school students clustered in the green room or the front few rows of the auditorium.

Superintendent Damon Alvey asked board members their thoughts on limiting other youth activities that traditionally are held in school facilities during weekends or evenings.

“I’d curtail everything at this point,” Peterson said. “If we’re serious about keeping students in school, we have to make school the top priority.”

“And honestly, something like youth basketball versus the show choir, I get much more anxiety hearing about the show choir and I’m sure Trisha (Fisher, the vocal music teacher) has great plans, but that gives me a lot more anxiety than the few kids we have in basketball or wrestling,” Rachel Olson, school board member, said.

The annual show choir event brings hundreds of students from schools throughout the area to the Vermillion High School.

“I think part of it is just the quantity that we have, all the extra people we have coming in for show choir versus basketball with just the coaches, generally, and the kids. We have some differences going on and show choir definitely gives me anxiety for the fall show,” Olson said.

Assistant High School Principal Jason Huska, when asked by Alvey if the vocal event could be held virtually, answered that it could.

“We might be playing basketball games with no crowd,” Huska added.

“That has been part of the plan to restrict numbers to the point that it’s only the participants,” Alvey said.

He later asked if the board felt that allowing two people per team member in the upcoming middle school basketball game is adequate mitigation.

Peterson said he feared that without limiting spectators, classes would eventually have to go virtual and that would fully eliminate all extra-curricular activities for the rest of the school year.

“I like the idea of virtual attendance,” Carol Voss-Ward, school board member, said. “I think it’s the right mitigation and it sends the right message. It captures what we want for our kids but it keeps our community as safe as possible, so I guess I agree with you, Doug. We’re thinking of the long term here. What can we do now that will be most effective for the good of the most people.”

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