By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — The Colfax Board of Education has agreed to continue the mask requirement adopted as board policy on August 5, especially in view of the recent surge in COVID-19 cases in Dunn County.
The requirement for all students, staff and essential visitors to wear masks was approved by the school board in the “back to school plan,” which was approved by KT Gallagher, Dunn County health officer, said William C. Yingst Jr. at the Colfax Board of Education’s September 21 meeting.
If the school board is not interested in changing the requirement, then the school board does not need to take any action, he noted.
Yingst said over the weekend, he had received a letter from Gallagher indicating the increase in COVID-19 cases in Dunn County was reaching a critical point.
On Friday, September 18, Gallagher reported 345 total cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County. One week later on September 25, Gallagher reported 485 total cases of COVID-19 in Dunn County.
The goal and the priority for the school district’s harm reduction plan is to keep school open, Yingst said at the September 21 meeting.
UW-Stout is the biggest contributor to the surge in new cases and accounts for the largest percent of the increase, he said.
In addition to requiring masks, the Colfax school district is working hard to maintain social distancing of six feet or more and has implemented measures to slow or prevent the virus from spreading, such as keeping classroom cohorts together as much as possible, allowing high school students to go to their lockers only by groups, maintaining two separate cafeteria areas so students can spread out and not allowing the students to serve themselves in the lunch line, Yingst said.
To keep the density of students low in the hallways, lockers are designated as “A” “B” “C” or “D,” and the “A” group is allowed to go their lockers, then the “B” group and so forth.
The staff and the administration have done a tremendous amount of work to make sure the students can be back in school this fall, said Todd Kragness, school board president.
With cold weather coming and people being inside more, it will be more difficult to contain the virus, but the school district is on the right track, he said.
Kragness advocated for taking no action on the mask requirement but revisiting the issue monthly.
“It is working so far. Why change?” he said.
If the school board changes the policy now and does not require masks but then has to reverse course and require masks later on, it will be much more difficult to implement the requirement again, said Jaclyn Ackerlund, school board member.
“We should stay the course and review it monthly,” she said.
School board member Kyle Knutson said he agreed.
“The number one goal is to keep schools open … we should stay the course,” he said.
“We should err on the side of caution. Keeping the buildings and the school open is our number one goal,” said Ken Bjork, school board member.
The time to consider eliminating the mask requirement is if or when COVID-19 levels decline, said Ken Neuburg, school board member.
“The levels are not declining. We should stay the course,” he said.
The Colfax Board of Education will again review the mask requirement at their next meeting on Monday, October 26.
Athletes in the Colfax school district are allowed to have two tickets for spectators per athlete per event, Yingst said.
Some schools in the Dunn-St. Croix Conference are allowing four spectators, he noted.
Outdoor events are not so much of a concern. Social distancing is easier to achieve for cross country and football. The spectators can be separated to maintain the proper distance, Yingst said.
Indoor events, such as volleyball, however, require a great deal of logistics, he said.
In between varsity, junior varsity and C-team games for volleyball, the custodians use backpack sprayers to spray the bleachers and then use a device that looks like a “Swiffer” to dry the bleachers, Yingst said.
The solution kills the virus in one minute, and it takes about 10 minutes to do the entire gymnasium, he said.
Getting people in and out of the building for the different volleyball games is a process, Yingst said.
Some school districts may be regretting the decision to allow four spectators per athlete. Allowing four spectators means everything is doubled, and more bleacher space and more bathroom space is needed to maintain the proper distance, he said.
All spectators are required to wear a mask, and volleyball players wear masks while they are playing. A couple of people have come into the school without masks and have been told they must wear a mask, Yingst said.
Traveling to other schools for games creates different issues, Yingst said, noting that staff and administration are spending large amounts of time on figuring out the logistics for sports.
If a different school allows four spectators per athlete, but Colfax allows only two, can they only have two spectators at Colfax? Kragness asked.
“Yes,” Yingst replied, explaining that the athletic directors communicate the requirements.
Two adults are allowed for spectators and no students, Yingst said.
“None of us want to be the COVID police, but if they do not follow the rules, they are not welcome back,” he said.
All of the athletic events are live-streamed on the school district’s website, so people who are unable to attend the event can always watch it that way, said John Dachel, Colfax High School principal.
To date, the Colfax school district has spent about $250,000 on COVID-19 related expenses, such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), substitute teachers, additional staff, computers and camera equipment, Yingst said.
So far, the district has received $84,000 in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act money from the federal government to cover those expenses, he said.
The United States Department of Agriculture also has extended flexibilities to school districts to allow summer meal program operators to continue serving free meals to all children during the fall months, Yingst said.
Breakfast and lunch are free to everyone who wants it, and the free meals will continue until December 31 or until the funding runs out, he said.
Yingst said he wanted to “put in a plug” for the teachers because they have been working extremely hard to “make this work” in the midst of a pandemic.
Yingst said he sees teachers’ cars at the school district late into the evening and on weekends, too.
“We learned a lot last spring,” he said, noting that all of the teachers in the school district have received a new laptop computer.
The students are making a concerted effort to follow the rules as well, Yingst said, adding that he appreciates the parents’ cooperation in also trying to meet the safety criteria to keep the school open.
The school district has made an effort, too, to work with parents and students. Some students started out the school year online, but it did not work out very well, so the parents wanted them back in school, and some students started out in school, but then transitioned to online classes, Yingst said.
Polly Rudi, director of pupil services, noted in her report to the Board of Education that there are 62 students all together who are learning online, representing 41 families.
Early childhood to sixth grade accounts for 32 students, and grades seven through twelve account for 30 students.
In other business, the Colfax Board of Education:
• Learned that Colfax high school students can now earn up to 37 credits at the college level through the Early College Credit Program for universities and the Start College Now program for technical schools.
• Learned that the week of October 19 through October 22, students and staff will be celebrating Homecoming, although specific activities have yet to be determined.
• Approved the energy-efficiency exemption of $179,569 with $20,254 in utility savings in the 2019-2020 school year.
• Accepted a donation of $2,000 from Colfax Chevrolet for the Student Assistance fund.
• Approved hiring Jacob Steinke as the middle school football coach and Kirk Secraw as the middle school volleyball coach for the 2020-2021 school year.
• Approved eight policy updates recommended by the school district’s consultant on policies (Neola) that involve statutory requirements: graduation requirements; computer tech network and internet acceptable use and safety; school district web page; staff education technology acceptable use and safety; use of social media; epidemics and pandemics; control of casual-contact communicable diseases; and personal protective equipment during pandemic or epidemic events.