NEW: COVID-19 SURGE BEING FELT LOCALLY
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Update: Since this story went to print, Menno Public School announced late Tuesday night that all students in grades 9-12 will be learning remotely and that all high school activities have been suspended until Nov. 30.
Oakview Terrace, the nursing home that is part of Freeman Regional Health Services, confirmed its first case of COVID-19 late last week; the Freeman Public School District has moved to remote learning only for students in grades 5-12 through at least this week; and Menno Superintendent Tom Rice said he would like his district to do the same as several dozen students and staff there were excluded from school early this week because of COVID-19-related matters.
All of this comes as cases associated with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic continue to soar across South Dakota and the Upper Midwest; that includes an upward trend in Hutchinson, McCook and Turner counties that has seen overall cases increase from 1,085 on Nov. 1 to 1,672 this past Tuesday, while the number of active cases has gone from 355 to 598.
Here’s a deeper dive into the impact locally.
A press release from Freeman Regional Health Services (FRHS) issued Friday afternoon, Nov. 13 confirmed that a resident at Oakview Terrace Nursing Home had tested positive for COVID-19.
The health care facility issued the release “in an effort to be transparent.”
“This resident was isolated from the other residents and will be cared for in the FRHS Oakview Terrace designated COVID-19 unit,” the release said. “FRHS continues to take every action possible to prevent this virus from further spreading in the healthcare facility and the broader community.”
It went on to note that FRHS has taken proactive steps since the onset of the pandemic to protect the FRHS Oakview Terrace nursing home residents and employees from COVID-19.
“These measures included following all recommended guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and South Dakota State Department of Health.
“Keeping everyone safe and healthy continues to be the top priority,” it continued. “FRHS has been in very close communications with South Dakota State Department of Health and Avera infectious disease specialists to ensure that all appropriate precautions have been implemented. FRHS has been screening and will continue daily screening of both employees and residents for COVID-19 symptoms. However, there is potential to have this viral infection and not show any symptoms. It is also possible for someone to be unaware that they have been exposed especially when there is substantial community spread, as is the case right now. Please be assured that FRHS will continue to do the utmost to minimize any further spread of COVID-19 within the facility and will keep the community informed of any further developments. FRHS requests the assistance of the community to take personal actions that minimize the spread and reduce the incidence of infection.”
Freeman Public goes remote
The Freeman Public School District was largely unaffected by COVID-19 through the first two months of this school year, but that has changed dramatically in recent weeks. In an attempt to mitigate the spread, administration introduced a hybrid model of learning the first week of November that gave students in grades 9-12 the choice of in-person instruction or remote learning. Later that week, a confirmed case with a staff member in the middle school prompted the district to exclude students in grades 5-9 from in-person learning and other school-related activities because they were deemed close contacts, while in-person instruction was suspended for all students in grades 4-12 on Nov. 5 and 6.
At Freeman Elementary, meanwhile, fourth graders late last month were sent home for remote learning for a two-week period following a confirmed case in their classroom.
The hybrid learning model at the middle school/high school continued the week of Nov. 9, with the district introducing a plan this week to bring students back to the classroom in two groups on a Monday-Tuesday, Wednesday-Thursday schedule, with all Fridays considered Flyer Fridays — a day set aside for students who need extra help with their studies.
But that was quickly abandoned on what was a rough day at Freeman Public on Monday, Nov. 16. In a message to patrons that afternoon, Superintendent Kevin Kunz confirmed seven new cases in the building that day, and that the district was made aware of additional confirmed cases from the weekend, prompting the decision to proceed with remote learning only through at least this week.
Additionally, all middle school basketball games for the week were postponed and all practices canceled.
“We will re-evaluate the situation at the end of the week prior to making a determination on both instruction and activities for next week,” Kunz said.
Impact at Menno Public
Tom Rice, who is in his first year as Superintendent at Menno Public School, told The Courier on Monday his district continues to see the impact of COVID-19 — something it has been dealing with for most of the fall. And he would like to see the school move to remote learning only for a period of time “in the best interest of everybody involved.”
Rice said 40 students were isolated heading into instruction this week because of either confirmed cases or close contacts, although 11 of them had reached the eighth day of the 14-day exclusion, per CDC guidelines, and opted to return to in-person instruction. The district allows that after seven days as long as the students wear a mask, do not participate in band or chorus and isolate themselves in a quarantined area during lunch.
Rice also said three staff members were out of the building on Monday while three others had returned from quarantine.
He described the situation as “very fluid” and has been in touch with his board via email and if and when the district should move to remote learning only — and for how long — with varying feedback. No decision had been reached as of early this week.
Rice said despite the challenges, he has a remarkable sense of calm.
“We’re just going to keep on rolling with faith and family in mind,” he said, thinking about a verse in 1 Corinthians that says no one should seek their own good, but the good of others.
“Lead with love,” Rice said. “And I’m not afraid to share the faith.”
And at Freeman Academy
With the exception of a confirmed case early on, Freeman Academy has been free of the virus inside their building, with no additional confirmed cases in either the student body or staff. While several students are quarantined because of close contacts, and therefore learning remotely, that happened outside of school.
Head of School Nathan Epp believes the efforts taken to mitigate the spread has likely played a part in Freeman Academy’s ability to continue with in-person instruction. That includes the usage of face coverings, spacing, the amount of cleaning that takes place across campus and the air purifiers that were installed in the HVAC system.
“All of that helps,” said Epp, who notes the school has gone through far more paper towels and trash bags than normal and the water bill is up, “which means people are washing their hands a lot more. It all takes more work, but it makes a difference.”
“Some of it may be luck, but we do have a constituency that is a little more conservative, a little more cautions,” he continued, noting nothing is certain and the spread of COVID-19 will continue. “We know it can change quickly.”