POLK COUNTY — Schools in Polk County are even further from opening schools to in-person classes as COVID-19 case counts in Polk County continue to escalate.
Central School District’s Superintendent Jennifer Kubista expressed her discouragement with board members on Dec. 7 in the upward trend in Polk County’s COVID-19 metrics, leaving them nowhere near where they need to be to restart in-person learning.
Kubista outlined the county’s trend in coronavirus outbreaks that are preventing long-term planning for returning to in-classroom instruction. The biggest indicator, she said while going over her latest “two-week look back” of Nov. 22 through Dec. 5, was Polk County rose to a case count of 460.6 per 100,000 in population.
“Being in comprehensive distance learning is over 200. We’re at 460.6,” Kubista said. “To get to on-site or hybrid learning, that number needs to be less than 50.”
In addition, she said the county’s test positivity rate is 10.9%. That needs to be less than 5% for hybrid, on-site learning. The increase in new cases over the last seven days, which should not be more than 5%, was at 47%. The previous week before that was 87%. Finally, Kubista pointed out that for a majority of time, in Polk County’s multiple cities, West Salem has been in the lead in the total number of cases, with Independence at No. 2 and Monmouth at No. 3.
“Since the end of October, the county has almost tripled the number of county case rates. This is one of the reasons why the school district has shut down all in-person instruction and activities because of these upward trends,” she said.
Kubista added the school district could have limited in-person learning. However, the county’s metrics show after a period of improvement, it could repeat the upward trend causing an unpredictable start and stop to the schedule.
Kubista said the school district’s own “small, but mighty outbreak response team” has been tracking the coronavirus’ movement through its population. In September, she said there was just one potential case. In October that grew to seven potential and one positive case. By November that spiked to 23 potential cases and five positives. So far in December, she said the CSD has nine potential cases and one positive.
“If staff show signs or symptoms, they’re reporting that to us, which could result in quarantine time as they wait for test results,” Kubista said.
Currently, there are 15 staff under quarantine, and a total of 37 to date.
Kubista laid out a clear path forward to the school board.
“When we get back to that 200 cases per 100,000 and less than 10% of positivity, sustained in a downward trend, and with input with Polk County partners, we will consider phasing in in-person learning,” she said.
Like other districts across the state, Dallas schools have already planned for students returning to at least a hybrid system. Kim Kellison, the district’s director of teaching and learning, said that the district has a plan in place to have students attend every other day in a hybrid in-person, distance learning format.
“That system is perfectly organized and does not need any work,” she said.
However, its COVID coordination team is now looking at a system used on the North Bend School District that has students half days in either a morning or afternoon group.
“So instead of the kids going every other day, they go in a morning session or an afternoon session,” Kellison said. “We thought that was important to explore especially for our elementary folks. They were very interested in that.”
The district is exploring that further and doing analysis on what that would cost as it would lengthen the day of the teachers. Work hours are set in a contract with the union.
“It causes us to do some adjustments, and also some of our classified employees on a 5.5- hour day so it lengthens their day out. There are some costs involved with it and some staffing, so we have to look at all of those things as we look at that a.m.-p.m. cohort.”
She said the system would benefit younger students because they would see their teachers more often, but it might be more difficult to implement at the middle school and high school.
“There are some pros and cons. We thought it was important that we go over that with our team and get a lot of input on that,” she said.
Kellison said the district will also ask for community feedback on the model in December via survey. She said she would meet with building principals on Dec. 10 to get their ideas and feedback on the morning-afternoon system.
She said state would like to start reopening schools statewide for some kind of in-person teaching around Feb. 1.
“That’s kind of a lofty goal and it requires the virus to calm down quite a bit. We will see how things go,” Kellison said. “I’m hoping that we can get those numbers down in Polk County so that we are able to safely open at some point.”