Families of the Rushford-Peterson School District were notified November 7 via email that the district will be moving to distance learning for all grades following a rise in COVID-19 cases. The district discussed the issues with Fillmore County Public Health November 6. An emergency meeting was held at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, November 9 to discuss both the changes in learning style and activities options.
“This quick change in our learning model is the result of an increase in local COVID cases as well as student quarantines in the City of Rushford and within the school. The total number of students with positive COVID test results is rising. The resulting percentage of our students infected and needing to quarantine is above 11% and county health officials are recommending the move to distance learning,” read the email sent by Superintendent Jon Thompson, School Nurse Stephanie Evenson, Elementary Principal Angela Shepard, and Middle/High School Principal Jake Timm.
School was canceled November 9 and 10 to allow staff time to prepare for the change. Full distance learning began November 11 and is slated to last through the end of Thanksgiving break. At this time, the district is anticipating a return to the hybrid model November 30. They will be working closely with Public Health analyzing incoming data.
Per Governor Walz and the Minnesota Department of Education Safe Learning Plan, thresholds for learning models are based upon the number of cases per 10,000 over 14 days, by county of residence. For R-P, this includes the counties of Fillmore, Winona, and Houston. The district has been using in-person learning for elementary and hybrid learning for middle and high school students (threshold of 10-19 cases), but did modify the grades receiving in-person and hybrid instruction. As cases continued to tick upwards, the district was left with little choice but to move to full distance learning (50+ cases).
“We left school Friday 100% expecting to have school in person Monday,” said Thompson. “We hear over and over these target numbers. Our county has been hovering right around 30 per 10,000 cases. Right now, our zip code is running higher. It’ s kind of alarming.”
At the time of the emergency meeting, 101 out of 709 currently enrolled students (14.2%) are in quarantine or have COVID. There are 12 positive cases in the district (one staff, one preschool, three elementary, one middle school, and six high school, plus multiple individuals with symptoms getting tested).
“Right now, Rushford has 70% of the cases for the county. Our percentage is so much higher than everyone else’s, so if you look at that, we really do have to weigh in,” added Evenson. “One student can take out an entire classroom. Our highest was 16 affected from one student.”
The biggest topic of discussion at the meeting, however, was whether or not the district should allow the continuation of sports activities and if so, how to do so. According to Thompson, while the football team currently has no positive cases of COVID, the entire varsity volleyball team is in quarantine through November 18. He indicated his initial thoughts were that if the district was utilizing distance learning, there would be no activities. However, he added that his thoughts changed after considering the value of sports and connection of the students to each other, as well as the fact that participation of activities is entirely a student/family choice. “After a lot of thought, I’ve changed my mind. I think it’s good for them to be involved, if they choose to.”
Activities Director John Loney echoed some of those sentiments. “It provides a bit of normalcy with all that’s going on in the world right now, is a time for social interaction and physical activity and good for mental health. They made the choice to participate during these tough times.” Loney quoted from a University of Madison study regarding the spread of COVID-19.
After much discussion, the district provided four options to the school board. Option One was moving forward with football and volleyball practices and games. Option Two was continuation of varsity football and volleyball only. Option Three was the continuation of football only, as an outdoor activity, but halting volleyball as an indoor activity. Option Four was cancellation of both football and volleyball immediately. Also included were two options for winter dance. Basketball is slated to begin November 23, with wrestling and One-Act Play beginning November 30.
“What about the other group of kids that want to be in school? I don’t see that as being fair,” stated Board Director Jeff Michel.
“There are kids that choose to participate for any number of reasons – positiveness, getting to know their peers, and overall health. They continue to participate and do those things. I think it’s fair to kids in activities if other kids choose not to be in sports or activities,” responded Loney.
“What I’m getting from this meeting is it’s more focused more on sports instead of kids being in school.”
“We’re not here tonight to debate the value of sports. That’s not why we’re here,” added Board Director Bonnie Prinsen. “I agree that isolation is difficult for kids. The whole pandemic has been difficult this way, but isolation has been a problem with young people for years. It’s not new to this pandemic. This school exists within a community and we have to make a decision that’s not only for the students and staff, but for the community. There are people in the community who are extra vulnerable and our students are part of the community.”
“I feel like what about the other kids. Not every kid is an athlete,” she continued. “I feel like I need to represent all students. Are we going to give opportunity to those other students? No matter what we decide, there will be a sizable group of people unhappy with us. If we’re saying we have to have distance learning, it’s hard to say they need to be in the building for activities.”
“We are all pretty used to getting to do what we want, when we want. I think of other generations that understood what it is to sacrifice. What if we’re teaching our kids you don’t always get to do what you want, when you want, and in the way that you want?”
“I think we’re zeroing in on athletes. What are we doing for the other students? If mental health is a primary concern, we need to do something for all of our students,” added Board Director Joyce Iverson.
“Absolutely that’s a concern. It was a concern before COVID,” noted Thompson. “The best thing for kids mentally is to keep them healthy and get them back in school as soon as possible.” He then asked the board to separate activities from school attendance.
A polling of the board indicated the majority were in favor of Option Two, with Grindland, Prinsen, and Michel leaning towards more restraint. An initial motion from Iverson for Option Two, seconded by Councilmember Kathy Wade, was retracted before a vote. Instead, the football and volleyball programs were voted on independently, as one is outside and one is not.
The board decided to move forward with Option One for the football program, moving forward with all levels of practices and games. The roll call vote carried 4:2 with Howe and Michel opposed and Iverson abstaining. For the volleyball program, the board opted for Option One as well, with the varsity team resuming only after completing quarantine. The roll call vote carried 4:3 with Howe, Michel, and Prinsen opposed. For the dance program, the board also approved Option One with a 4:3 roll call vote with Howe, Michel, and Prinsen opposed.
Nurse Evenson questioned the board as to a threshold amount of cases which would prompt a revisiting of the plans. However, Thompson said no threshold was needed and indicated it would be the same protocol as in the past. “Stephanie is an advocate for the kids, but she’s also a nurse and an advocate for health. It’s black and white, I get that, but there’s so many facts and figures that we have to analyze. I’m comfortable having her guide that.”
“I have a real concern that we could have to expand further and I’m not afraid to do so to keep the kids safe,” Evenson noted. She and Thompson will have the authority to shut down any program should the cases warrant it.
For those that missed the emergency meeting, a recording can be found on the district’s YouTube channel: