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Elementary school COVID-19 numbers reflect communities, but vaccine could help stop spread

As COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and North Dakota climb, some elementary schools in the region are starting to feel the effects.

Mayville sign logo tower.jpg
A sign welcomes visitors to Mayville, N.D. (Grand Forks Herald photo)

As COVID-19 cases in Minnesota and North Dakota climb, some elementary schools in the region are starting to feel the effects.

During the week of Nov. 15, 13 students at Peter Boe Jr. Elementary School in Mayville, North Dakota, tested positive for COVID-19. Six of those students were in third grade, making up 17% of the third grade class. In total, 41 elementary students missed school that week because they tested positive for COVID-19, were in close contact with someone with COVID-19, had another illness and other reasons.

At the school, students are not required to wear masks unless a grade level or the whole school crosses the threshold of a 10% positivity rate. Because the third grade crossed the threshold with a 17% positivity rate, students in third grade are required to wear masks or undergo serial testing.

Other than requiring third grade students to wear masks, May-Port CG Public District Superintendent Michael Bradner says the district is relying on other COVID-19 mitigation measures like cleaning, personal hygiene and community education to slow the spread of the virus in the elementary school.

“We have not seen huge transmissions that are linked directly back to the school and I think that our school certainly follows what’s happening in the community,” said Bradner.

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He expects most of the students who tested positive during the spike in cases will be able to return to school on Monday after the Thanksgiving break.

“We’re hoping that our numbers are going to be coming back down. We anticipate that’s going to come down or level off,” said Bradner. “We do have some concern with a lot of travel and people being with extended family. I’ll be interested to see how that might affect things when they come back on Monday as well.”

The school in Mayville is not the only school that has seen a recent rise in COVID-19 cases. In the last two weeks, schools in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, saw districtwide active COVID-19 cases go from two, to 12, to 28. Students in the district are encouraged, but not required to wear masks.

When students at Thief River Falls test positive for COVID-19, any student deemed a close contact by the school nurse and administrative team at the school has to quarantine at home. Since Nov. 15, around 150 students in the district have had to quarantine as close contacts.

Donita Stepan, superintendent at Thief River Falls Public Schools, says positive cases are spread pretty evenly across the elementary, middle and high school -- no school is producing significantly more COVID-19 cases than the others. She says new positive cases have slowed down since the spike in cases. This week, there were only three new cases of COVID-19 at the elementary school.

Even as student numbers spiked, few staff members in Thief River Falls have tested positive for COVID-19.

“That’s very different than last year at the time and so we are really hanging our hat on the fact that we have 75 to 80% of our staff who are vaccinated,” said Stepan. “We don’t have to worry about going to a distance learning model at this point because we have staff to cover our building.”

Child vaccine

Seeing the difference vaccinating staff has made from last year to this year, Stepan is excited that children ages five to 11 can now get vaccinated. Last week, the district hosted its first vaccine clinic for children in the age group, and more than 100 students received their first dose of the vaccine.

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“If we can get our kids vaccinated, we can stop these quarantines and stop these positive cases,” said Stepan.

The Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 through 11 was approved by the FDA for emergency use on Oct. 29. The vaccine is administered as a two-dose series, with three weeks between doses. According to the North Dakota Department of Health, as of Nov. 23, 7,652 doses have been administered. On Nov. 24, Minnesota state data reported that 102,202 Minnesota children ages 5 through 11 have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

At its meeting on Nov. 22, the school board in Crookston, Minnesota, voted to roll back COVID-19 precautions. The decision was made partly because elementary school students now have the opportunity to get vaccinated, said Jeremy Olson, superintendent at Crookston Public Schools.

After Dec. 22, the district will move to Level 2 of its COVID-19 safety plan, which recommends, but not requires masks for elementary and high school students and teachers. That level of the plan also does not require non-household close contacts to quarantine. At the current level, Level 3, elementary students and teachers are required to wear masks, and all close contacts are required to quarantine.

Dec. 22 is the last day of school before the district’s winter break, with school starting again on Jan. 3. Olson said the board voted to roll back COVID-19 mitigation measures on Dec. 22 because parents will have enough time between when the decision was made and Jan. 3 to fully vaccinate their children.

“I think that as parents get this opportunity to vaccinate their kids, I do believe that this responsibility needs to start falling on parents shoulders rather than school’s shoulders,” said Oslon. “We’ve required masking in K-6 because parents didn’t have the right to go get their kids vaccinated. Now we’re turning over that responsibility to them.”

In Thief River Falls and Crookston, vaccines are seen as the best way to stop COVID-19 from spreading in schools, with superintendents and principals actively encouraging parents to vaccinate children. In Grafton, North Dakota, school administrators are more neutral about the vaccine’s potential.

Grafton Public Schools is hosting an optional vaccine clinic for 5 to 11-year-olds on Monday, Nov. 29, through the Walsh County Health District. Grafton Public Schools Superintendent Darren Albrecht said the district is hosting the clinic on school grounds because it was asked by the Walsh County Health District and it makes it easier for parents who choose to vaccinate their children.

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“The district is not taking any steps to encourage parents, but supporting any decisions that they make,” he said.

Related Topics: EDUCATIONCORONAVIRUS
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