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St. James school district announces plan to return to remote learning as cases reach all-time highs in Watonwan County

Sean Ellertson
St. James Plaindealer

Last Thursday, members of St. James school district staff and Watonwan County Public Health meet to put together a plan for returning to remote learning, as cases in Watonwan County continue to reach their highest levels.

"The numbers in the county, school, and zip code have gone up exponentially," opened Superintendent Dr. Steve Heil.

The week of Nov. 9th, the district sent home 36 students. Four kids at Armstrong, 15 from the middle school/high school, and 17 from Northside. Ten staff were sent home, including five from the middle school/high school.

As of Thursday last week, eight students from Armstrong had to be sent home, 41 from the middle school/high school, and 24 from Northside. A total of seventeen staff members were sent home, with, three from Armstrong, nine from the middle school/high school, and five from Northside.

"We are starting to see it not only affect a spouse and the teacher, or para or employee at work, we're starting to see it affect each other at work," said Heil. "So, therefore, we can say it's possible that the spread is starting to enter the school because it is causing others to have to quarantine or isolate themselves from being at school."

At the county level, COVID numbers are the highest the county has seen.

Since the end of October, where the county recorded around 35 cases in the weeks of October 17th-October 30th, the county is now seeing case numbers and 14-day case rates above 100, reaching levels of 127 cases for the weeks of November 6th through November 19th. 

"The numbers are increasing statewide, regionally, locally, and that case rate I expect to continue to go up," said Julia Whitcomb, Watonwan County Community Health Services Manager and Administrator.

With numbers so high in the county and in the school staff across the district is stretched thin for substitutes.

"We're at that tipping point," said Heil. "We're stretched as thin as we can get. If we lose a couple more staff members at either building we're in the situation where I'll start moving district office people over just to watch kids until we can get out of this situation, so we're at that breaking point."

Heil said that the district would work with teachers and staff worried about their health and want to work from home. 

Northside's transition to remote learning will start on Monday, November 30th. The 30th and December 1st will be in-person as scheduled. December 2nd and 3rd will be District Transition Days for teachers. The days are non-student contact days but are still counted towards the school calendar, and will be used to prep teachers for remote learning. December 4th is a no school day for teacher workshops. 

Monday, December 7th will be the start of remote learning for Northside students.

"Right now, for really the safety of all staff and students, this is a transition that we need to make," said Heil.

In addition, school activities are paused until December 18th, per Governor Tim Walz's orders.

“We need to be a lot more stringent on symptoms here in these next several days that we're here so we cannot have any students there with any symptoms.”

The transition for St. James Middle School/High School students started this past week. Group A students were in-person on Monday, and Group B students were in-person on Tuesday.

Starting next week, Monday and Tuesday will be remote learning days for all students. Wednesday and Thursday will be transition days for teachers with Friday being a no-school day.

Heil said that the earliest students would return to in-person hybrid learning with pods is January 4th based on numbers in the weeks prior.

Another option Heil laid out was bringing back Northside students on the 4th, and having grades 6-12 stay remote learning until the 18th.

If numbers do not go down, the final option was to return all students back to in-person on January 18th, assuming numbers recover.