October 26, 2020

Published: October 26, 2020
Superintendent Reports

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We are one quarter into the 2020-2021 school year and I am pleased to report we are experiencing a largely successful transition to the new normal of education under COVID-19 safety protocols. While things have not been perfect, students are still learning and participating in extracurricular activities….albeit in modified ways. Many worried that students would be unwilling to wear masks and teachers would spend their time managing COVID and unable to effectively teach virtually. These concerns quickly dissipated due to the overwhelming acceptance from our students and staff in demonstrating their understanding of the importance of adjusting to the many modifications brought about due to our present realities. Our students, parents, and staff have been overwhelmingly cooperative and supportive as we continue to learn how to adapt and persevere every day. The challenge lies in giving students the resources they need while not overburdening our faculty, which is our greatest resource.

As of Monday (10/26) the district had 6 positive cases of COVID-19, including staff and students, with many additional students and staff in quarantine due to close contact. The active positive cases represent 0.3% of our total student/staff population. The present quarantine numbers represent 5.2% of our total student/staff population. This is the most concerning number due to the fact we understand that many quarantined students perform better in a seated format. Until contact tracing procedures change, we must follow all health department guidelines. Contact tracing is very time and labor intensive. Every positive case takes approximately two to three hours to determine direct contacts who need to be quarantined and then providing the most effective communication to those students and their parents. So far, our school nurses and administration have personally contacted everyone impacted to inform and answer questions. We understand the inconveniences and stresses associated with quarantine and it is our hope that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) will consider making modifications in the near future in regards to quarantines for children. Until then, the St. James R-I School District will continue to comply with all CDC and county health department recommendations.

Positive tests and quarantines have created a challenge to our attendance rates so far this school year. Due to these challenges, our seated attendance has been running much lower than desired over the past couple weeks. Despite these challenges, we have been able to still educate and feed over 1400 of our 1724 students on our campuses. With our seamless summer free meals program we are eligible to feed any students willing to come by the district and pick up their meals as well as those on campus. Our Average Daily Attendance (ADA), including distance instruction and quarantined students, is roughly 93%…which is extremely good considering our circumstances. COVID-19 is an ongoing pandemic which is expected to impact schools through the remainder of this school year and into the 2021-2022 school year. The decisions we make now will set a precedent throughout the pandemic. With that in mind, it is more important now than ever before to make sound decisions for our school. 

One suggestion I have heard is closing the school for a period of time to allow the virus to “run its course”. This is not a viable solution for a number of reasons. First, COVID-19 is not the flu. Districts typically close during flu season because attendance is so low that it is no longer financially reasonable to remain open. Basically, schools are losing money by being open. DESE’s changes to attendance requirements for COVID-19 has made it possible for districts to provide distance instruction for students and count them in attendance so the financial impact due to low ADA is no longer an issue. Additionally, unlike the flu, COVID-19 is not going to run through the community in a week or two and then no longer be a problem. Closing down will not make COVID-19 go away. It is a reality we are going to have to live with until a viable vaccine and treatments are in place. 

Second, virtual/AMI instruction does not have the same level of effectiveness or quality as seated instruction. Yes, we have numerous virtual/quarantined students who are being provided with distance instruction and that is certainly better than receiving no instruction. However, it is important to remember that the best day of virtual instruction is not as good as the worst day of traditional/seated instruction. Face to face instruction also provides critical social and emotional support as well as breakfast and lunch for our students. Closing down, even temporarily, will interrupt the instruction, supports, and in some cases… nutrition for our students. Third, closing school will only stop the spread of the virus in our community if everyone quarantines themselves. We all know that will not happen. Until there is data supporting that closing schools will stop the spread of the virus, this will not be a legitimate option. The only caveat to validate closing school is if we do not have enough teacher/sub coverage on a given number of days. When schools are closed, students will still be socializing with their friends and traveling to various locations… in many cases not wearing masks and being as cautious as being in a structured school setting. Thus, the virus will continue to spread. The overall health and wellness of our students and staff will remain high on our list of concerns, but we do not feel closing school is a viable option. It is best for us to continue seated instruction for students who are able to attend and provide distance instruction for virtual and quarantined students in keeping with our virtual/AMI plan. We are presently making several districtwide health and safety adjustments as recommended by the Department of Health. We will also continue to review mask wearing, hand washing, and cleaning procedures with our students, staff, and custodians. We understand there remain concerns on both sides of this dilemma. Through all of these concerns, we will continue to provide the learning experiences our students need, despite the constraints of the pandemic. We appreciate all parents who have shown a willingness to adapt to these new and difficult circumstances. We are also very proud of our staff and students who continue to adapt well and remain resilient through all challenges. #stjtigerpride