As with the rest of the country, positive cases of the COVID-19 pandemic are spiking here in Switzerland County — and that rise has again led to the temporary closing of schools in favor of virtual learning.
Ironically, it was on Friday, March 13th —Friday the 13th — that Switzerland County School Superintendent Rod Hite had to make the decision to close in-person learning here at the beginning of the pandemic. The decision to again take students out of in-person learning again came on Friday the 13th — this time Friday, November 13th. Schools will remain in a virtual learning format tentatively until Monday, November 30th.
Since the schools reopened in August, school officials have been in close contact with Switzerland County Health Officer Dr. Scott Frede and others in working on ways to keep students and staff members safe.
Even with all of those efforts, Hite was forced to make the difficult decision to close schools and move to virtual learning as the number of positive cases grew.
Last Friday, he sent an announcement to parents and the community. Here are some excerpts from that announcement:
“COVID-19 cases within our community continue to rise and our state has record setting numbers almost daily. As we evaluate our current situation, we have determined it is necessary to go to E-Learning until November 30th. While we feel students follow the safety protocols put in place currently at school, we also know that positive cases brought to the school may put other families or our most vulnerable population at risk as the students return home. Out of an abundance of caution, we feel this temporary seven school day E-Learning trial will allow us to analyze if temporary E-Learning is beneficial in reducing our community spread. These next sixteen days will allow all our current quarantined students and those who tested positive to return to school on Nov. 30th along with our general population of students. With the sharp increase in community spread, we feel it is necessary to take these steps in an effort to explore options for the winter months ahead while we have a built in Thanksgiving break.
“We know in December and January our community will spend more time indoors. If we see that the E-Learning trial has had an impact in reducing our total number of cases, we may use this as preparation for the hard winter months. The only way this will be successful is if students stay within their small social bubble and with immediate family. If families will reduce their attendance at public or private gatherings during the upcoming holiday; and our community continues to wear a mask, wash hands, and social distance when possible, we can make an impact on reducing numbers within our community. We know the students in quarantine are healthy students who are currently self monitoring in the event they may develop symptoms. Currently, 9 of our 1,433 students are home with a positive COVID-19 case. This is a small fraction of our student population at just over one half of one percent. These most recent cases have developed since last Thursday. Knowing it is a small percentage of students, all extracurricular practices will continue but be closed to spectators and events will be limited to two family members only….
“…As we take this short break from in class sessions, the school will continue to work with the local health department to contact trace. We ask that if your child receives a positive COVID-19 test that you continue to call the school and report the positive case. This will allow us to assist the health department and monitor school cases for our return.”
As schools are closed because of the pandemic numbers here, some in the community are questioning why extra curricular activities — more prominently sports — are still going on.
On Tuesday morning, Hite addressed that decision specifically:
“We know that only one half of one percent of our students have active cases. One of the main reasons for this short trial of going virtual is to see if we can help slow community spread. Sports fall under extracurricular but so do other activities such as spell bowl, band, choir and other school related activities for students K-12.
“With all of these activities we have gone virtual for viewing outside of two parents per participant. Those parents/guardians in attendance must be socially distanced and wear a mask at all indoor activities, they are in attendance in the event of an injury or our younger students need a ride to and from an activity. Events during this time are not open to the general public.
“We are however continuing to monitor all our events and if we see there is a concern, even with reduced attendance, or community spread becomes too large we will take into consideration no extracurricular activities as well.
“This year we have had players unable to play due to quarantine due to close contact and we’ve even had entire teams quarantined as a close contact if a player is positive, in that event the entire team is not allowed to play. These rules are still in place and exceptions are not made for those players or teams if a player becomes positive or the player is considered a close contact.
“We want all our students, K-12 to have the best academic and well rounded experience possible.
All of these activities play a role for all our students. Our number one goal is safety and if we find these events cannot be conducted safely they too will be ended.
“Currently we plan to have students back on campus November 30th with no disruption to academic or extracurricular events, but we will keep our limited fan attendance in place in an effort to continue to help prevent community spread.”
Along with the superintendent, on Tuesday morning Dr. Frede released a statement:
“The decision to temporarily suspend in-person instruction at the schools was a difficult one. I think, however, that there are misconceptions as to why it became necessary. Suspension of in-person learning was not a reaction to a widespread outbreak at the school. In fact, quite the opposite.
“As of 11/17, we have had less than 0.5% of the students with a positive test and 0 staff currently positive. This is a low number considering the number of students and the activities they are involved with and is a testament to the excellent work of our school administration, teachers, staff, students and parents. Suspension of in-person learning, however, is a reaction to the number of students that are quarantined due to contact with a known positive at home, school, and in the community.
“As this number exceeds 20%, and begins to impact bus transportation, in-person learning becomes less feasible. To be clear, suspension of in person learning is not because it is ‘too dangerous’ to go to school.
“The question then becomes why has our community spread increased so dramatically? Contact tracing continues to show spread primarily from formal and informal gatherings of friends and families, sharing vehicles, homes and meals, without masks or distancing. This has included weddings, baby showers, grandparents birthday parties, family reunions, church services and simply hanging out with friends indoors. Specifically, not school based spread. At school, responsible adults are supervising mask usage, hand washing, symptom monitoring, self quarantining, and distancing. If we, as a community, can do the same when we socialize, we may be able to help protect our friends and neighbors who are more vulnerable to severe disease, and we may be able to return to in-person learning at school.
“Community spread has had a very real impact on our vulnerable populations. Across the United States and the world for that matter, a single case at a nursing home spreads rapidly and has had a mortality rate exceeding 30%. The dedicated staff at Swiss Villa has done a remarkable job of keeping the virus out of the nursing home until about three weeks ago. Since then, through vigorous quarantining and symptom monitoring and treatment, the selfless staff have fought very hard to keep the impact as low as possible. Please keep the families who have lost loved ones or have loved ones in the nursing home in your thoughts and prayers. Please keep the selfless nursing home staff in your thoughts and prayers as well, while they continue to confront COVID-19 up close, personal and directly 24 hours each day.
The point is that your personal decisions have a real impact on these vulnerable populations. While mask usage and social distancing are inconvenient and have been excessively politicized, they do reduce spread. No one is suggesting that they eliminate it. No one is suggesting that masks are 100% effective. No one is suggesting that friends and families should not socialize. No one is suggesting that ‘everything needs to be shut down’. Keeping in mind that for most of us the symptoms are either so mild or non existent, we as a community need to think about the most vulnerable, and how can we, as individuals, avoid unwittingly spreading COVID to someone else. This will become especially critical over the Thanksgiving Holiday.”