By Joey May

The Hiawatha Elementary School has transitioned to remote learning until Oct. 12 due to COVID-19 cases and quarantines.

(Editor’s Note: This vote was taken last Friday, Sept. 25 and school did resume at HMS and HHS on Wednesday of this week as planned.)

The Hiawatha School Board met in special session at noon Friday via Zoom and voted to resume on-site learning at the middle and high schools Sept. 30 if staffing issues can be overcome.

The elementary school will remain on remote learning through at least Oct. 9 with a projected return date set for Oct. 12.

This came after the district transitioned to remote learning at all school buildings on Wednesday, Sept. 23 due to extensive quarantining and COVID exposure with elementary school staff and students. Numbers at HMS and HHS have remained low, however instructors at those buildings have issues as many have elementary school age children who will be on remote learning.

School nurses shared numbers from each of the school buildings, with Whitney McCauley noting the elementary had by far the most current cases, those with pending tests and staff and students quarantined. She said all but one grade level and preschool had been effected with five positive staff and two students. She said 93 students were out due to COVID-related issues, whether due to school or home exposure or for quarantine. She said 20 staff members were out for quarantine, or because they were experiencing symptoms or due to actual positive tests.

Nurse Erin Wenger said she had two positive cases each at the middle school and high school. Nine students were out at the HMS and 10 at HHS for exposure.

These numbers were as of the meeting time on Friday and will have changed before press time.

The board also voted to continue with the current sports schedule as closely as possible, although there may be some events rescheduled. HHS Athletic Director Kim Lillie said word has gotten out that Hiawatha had community-spread COVID-19 cases and so the team that was scheduled to come Friday night — Rock Creek — was hesitant, but did agree to come play.

She also noted that Hiawatha had been “uninvited” to two volleyball tournaments. Board President Tom Simmer thanked Lillie for her quick work this week after the decision made on Wednesday that also included canceling all sporting events. The board also met Thursday morning and reinstated sports and activities at the middle and high schools and Lillie has had to work at trying to get events rescheduled.

“We have really put her through the ringer,” Board President Tom Simmer said.

Board member Andrea Groth made a statement that she wanted to emphasize the decision to transition to remote learning made Sept. 23 was not a full board decision. She said there had been much concern from parents about that decision and wanted them to know it was not board-voted upon. Simmer said that sometimes quick decisions have to be made in a situation of a crisis and this was one of them and felt that they all learned something from the situation.

There was much discussion about availability of personnel to cover not only classrooms at the HMS and HHS if a teacher needed to be out for COVID-related reasons or because they had an elementary age child under quarantine or at home for remote learning. There was discussing of utilizing paras from the elementary to cover classes at the HMS and HHS — as proctors while the actual instructor was on Zoom with the classroom.

Superintendent Lonnie Moser also told board members there is a possibility of utilizing the United Methodist Church for remote learning students to free up HMS and HHS teachers to be in the classroom. These would not be students under quarantine due to COVID exposure at the elementary. Moser said Pastor Andrew Finch was working on this possibility, but had to get permission from church elders.

Health officials from the Brown County Health Department expressed concern that students in this environment be kept in their “cohorts” or groups and spread out with masks.

Wenger said she was concerned with continued transfer of the virus if staff traveled from building to building and students were not kept with their “cohorts” or regular group of students as has been the case. If students did go to the Methodist Church, she recommended seating charts.

Angie Reith, the acting health officer with the Multi-County Health Department agreed with Wenger, stating that social distancing would need to be maintained between groups of students not used to being together.

Reith said this spike has been the largest number of case increases to date and she doesn’t know if they “have a handle on this.”

Board member Ian Schuetz said he had been questioned by a parent who had a student at the elementary and one at middle. The parent asked if both students could be on the same learning plan — even if HMS goes back to on-site — for better convenience for their family. Then once the concern is over and all buildings are in on-site learning, then both students could transition back. Other board members felt the district needed to be flexible on this and Moser agreed.

Board members also expressed concern over how quickly the situation escalated and they felt that the school was doing all they could to mitigate the spread of the virus within the school district. However, as evident from contact tracing, the virus has become community spread and board members encouraged all staff to be just as careful out of the schools as they are within the schools.

Board member Ian Schuetz said he patrons and staff needed to be on board with avoiding situations where they are exposed.

Hiawatha Community Hospital provider Jodi Twombly, PA-C, also joined the meeting and said all nine hospital providers agreed unanimously that the middle and high schools should reopen and sports resume with the current low numbers considered.

Masks will strictly be enforced with open attendance at the football games and volleyball games will also require masks and only those with tickets will be allowed entry to keep numbers low.

There was also discussion of developing gating criteria for the Hiawatha district, as much of the criteria already out there did not pertain as specifically to rural districts.

The board is currently set for a special meeting at 7 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 5 unless another meeting is needed prior.

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