We are monitoring the spread of COVID-19 in our community and continuing to have regular conversations with local and state public health officials.
The recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Winona County is certainly cause for concern. The official 14-day case rate has been in the 30s for a few weeks right now, and the unofficial, real-time case rate that we are calculating using data reported from the Minnesota Department of Health is in the 40s.
A shift to a more restrictive learning model is possible, and if cases continue to rise, a shift is likely. At this point, however, we are staying in Winhawk Learning Model No. 3 — which is a hybrid model for all grade levels.
Here are a few of the reasons why:
- Our students and staff are doing a phenomenal job adhering to the health and safety protocols. Because these mitigation strategies are being followed, we are able to easily identify close contacts of positive cases, inform those individuals of the need to quarantine and prevent any further spread in the school buildings.
- We are also not seeing a large number of cases in our school buildings. Through Wednesday, we have had a total of 18 students or staff test positive since the first day of school. The percentage of students or staff to test positive is well below the percentage of the general population in Winona County over a similar period.
- The mental health of our students is a major concern. We heard from many of our high school students who shared their struggles during distance learning in the spring, struggles that returned in the fall when we started the school year in distance learning for secondary students and paused athletics. Making decisions focused on the health and safety of our school community also includes the mental health of our students. We are worried about them.
- If we were to move to distance learning, we know there are some students who will choose to congregate anyway, and they may not adhere to the health and safety protocols while doing so. Keeping the schools open and keeping athletics and activities going would allow these students to continue to socialize under careful guidance of teachers, coaches and other staff members.
- The ramifications of moving completely to distance learning will put additional strain on the community, especially those who will need to find additional child care or take time off from work to stay home with their children.
That being said, if cases continue to rise, or if we see more spread in our school buildings, we will have to move to distance learning. It is our intention to give our students, our staff and our families enough time to prepare for such a move. However, if we see a sudden spike in cases or a breakout in our buildings, we may have to move more quickly.
Here are a few other things to keep in mind:
- We could decide to shift just the secondary (Grades 7-12) into distance learning while keeping Grades K-6 in a hybrid model. That was how we started the school year. However, if cases continue to rise, even the elementary could move to distance learning.
- Because the holidays are right around the corner, and there is concern that family gatherings could add to the community spread of COVID-19, there is a possibility that we could announce a shift to distance learning for an extended period of time, such as into mid-January or beyond.
We are going to continue to seek data and guidance from local and state public health officials in order to make the best decision possible for our students, our staff, our families and our community. We know that the uncertainty of this situation is unsettling, and we wish we had a clear vision of what the next few weeks will bring.
We plan to discuss the situation at the next school board meeting, which will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 5. You can watch live on our website, on our YouTube channel and on HBC Channel 20.
While there is so much we cannot control, we can all do our part to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Stay physically distanced from those not in your immediate circle. Avoid large gatherings. Stay home when sick. Quarantine when you are identified as a close contact.
We are all in this together.
Dr. Annette K. Freiheit
Winona Area Public Schools