East Grand Forks School Board members are poised to make a decision on COVID-19 mitigation strategies for the school year at their upcoming meeting on Monday, Aug. 23.

The board discussed the proposed Safe Return to In-Person Learning Plan at a special meeting Tuesday morning, Aug. 17, where Polk County Public Health Director Sarah Reese reported the emergence of the Delta variant in the region has left school districts in a different position than they hoped to be in heading into the new school year.

"We are seeing cases again," Reese said.

After summer largely brought a return to normalcy, she said COVID-19 cases have risen sharply again in recent weeks. During the month of July, there were 21 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Polk County, none of which were in patients younger than 10. In the first week of August, there were 25 confirmed cases in the county, including multiple children and one infant.

She also noted that three weeks ago, the CDC reported there was low transmission in Polk County. Two weeks ago, transmission rates in the county were upgraded to "moderate," and the last two weeks have seen "substantial" transmission. The CDC recommends indoor masking, including for vaccinated people, in counties with "substantial" and "high" transmission rates.

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Still, the board hopes to use the lessons it learned last year to create a safe and healthy learning environment for all students in the upcoming year. Superintendent Mike Kolness said that at this time, he is not comfortable mandating masks for all students, although masking will be encouraged and the plan could possibly change at any time during the school year in response to new data or case numbers.

"One thing I want to state right away is that it's a fluid plan, and it can change quickly based on what's going on in our county or northwest Minnesota or the state," Kolness said. "So the board can make a final decision next Monday, but people have to be aware that the planning can change."

The current draft of the Safe Return to In-Person Learning Plan is available to read in full on the district's website. As of Monday evening, 86 people had left public comments on the document, which are also available to be read online. Board members will have to make a decision by their next meeting on language regarding vaccinations, masks, quarantine periods and more.

Kolness said the most important part of keeping students safe this year will be having multiple layers of COVID-19 mitigation strategies, starting with parents, teachers and school staff ensuring that no sick or symptomatic student is in school.

Reese emphasized that vaccines will continue to be the most important COVID-19 mitigation strategy, and they have repeatedly and consistently been shown to be an effective way of preventing serious illness and death. As of last week, about 50% of the county's vaccine-eligible population ages 12 and older have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and she said that number is expected to increase this week as many more people have sought out a vaccine as school sports and activities resume.

The district's COVID-19 incident command team will resume meeting in the coming weeks in anticipation of the new school year.