BROOKINGS – COVID-19 cases in Brookings County are surging, and the school district is feeling the ramifications.
At Monday night’s Brookings School Board meeting, Superintendent Klint Willert proposed a number of modifications to the district’s COVID policies, including a return to Phase II in the Bobcat Tracks Back to the Classroom Plan, the elimination of “in-house” contact tracing, and adopting updated isolation and quarantine guidelines provided by the CDC.
“I’m going to state the obvious – we have seen an uptick in our COVID numbers,” Willert said via speakerphone at Monday night’s school board meeting.
The second semester of school for the district started the previous Jan. 3. At that time, the school district had four active cases. On Tuesday, the district’s COVID dashboard showed 34 active cases. School board members theorized that the number of active cases in the district was unquestionably higher, due to the fact that at-home antigen tests, which Willert said had been given out by the district, do not count toward the official total.
Outside of COVID cases, a large number of students have been forced to missed school because they are deemed a “close-contact” to a COVID-positive student.
“One teacher today told me they had 33 students absent on Friday,” School Board member Deb DeBates said.
Willert explained that the contact tracing taking place over the past week or so has taken a significant amount of time of each of the school’s administrators. In light of that, he recommended that the district stop all “in-house” contact tracing and leave it up to the South Dakota Department of Health (DOH).
“It’s a manpower issue and a capacity issue,” Willert said. “I think its best left to those experts from the DOH that can reach out to those families accordingly as opposed to our administrators dedicating their time to contact tracing.”
“It’s OK to let the DOH do that. It’s not something our district should be spending so much time on,” DeBates said. “I know our district is overwhelmed with that.
“I am fully supportive of not doing in-house contact tracing,” School Board member Keli Books said.
Willert explained that the DOH would reach out to students and their families regarding the next steps in contact tracing, which includes a document that the student would fill out. The DOH would then communicate with the district who the close contacts were.
A further change suggested by Willert was to implement the CDC’s updated isolation and quarantine guidelines.
These guidelines, which are available on the district’s website, shorten the quarantine time if you were exposed to COVID. Per the CDC’s guidelines:
• If you were exposed to COVID and not up to date on COVID vaccines, you need to stay home and quarantine for five full days. After five days, you may return but would need to wear a mask until 10 days post exposure (assuming no symptoms begin).
• If you were exposed to COVID and are vaccinated or have been confirmed COVID positive in the last 90 days, you do not need to stay home unless you develop symptoms, while wearing a mask until 10 days post exposure (assuming no symptoms begin).
• If you test positive for COVID, regardless of vaccination status, you must isolate for five days. If symptoms improve, or you are fever free for 24 hours, you may end isolation. Masks should be worn for 10 days after a positive test.
Masks would not be required by the school, but Willert explained they are “part of the process.” Students who chose to wear a mask, in alignment with the update guidelines, could return to school quicker than those who were adamant about not wearing a mask.
Willert explained that these guidelines would be effective immediately and retroactively, which meant that students who were on isolation or quarantine days that did not fit with the updated guidelines (for example, day 8 of symptom-free quarantine), then those students could (and should) return to school.
“It would put us in a position consistent with virtually every other school district in the state of South Dakota and puts us in a consistent practice with the DOH and the guidance they have given us,” Willert said.
DeBates asked if the school would be able to ask for proof of vaccination following a return to school after an exposure, “because if we are saying that they can come to school, will we have to ask for that proof of vaccination?”
Willert explained that the schools have been asking for proof of vaccination, and “to my knowledge we haven’t been met with any opposition as of yet about that.”
“(The updated guidelines) would impact activities as well,” Willert said. “Participants, for example at a basketball game, would wear a mask on the sideline, and then if they are in the game, they would be able to take that mask off.”
Willert further explained that the increase in COVID numbers warrants a discussion about a return to Phase II in the Bobcat Tracks Back to the Classroom Plan. Earlier in the fall, the district moved to Phase II when a surge of cases went through the county but returned to Phase I with “masks optional” later in the semester when cases declined. Phase II is highlighted by “masks strongly recommended” as well as other safety precautions such as social distancing and increased sanitization of “high-touch” areas.
“I would recommend that we move to Phase II,” Willert said. “I would envision that we would present that as an action item as part of our meeting on (Jan. 12).”
The Brookings School Board has scheduled a special meeting for 6 p.m. tonight at at the Dakota Prairie Elementary Community Room. The next regularly scheduled school board meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Dakota Prairie Elementary Community Room.
Contact Addison DeHaven at [email protected]