Local school administrators are almost afraid to talk about how their schools are being affected by the COVID-19 pandemic for fear of jinxing their good fortune.
At a time when South Dakota is making national news because the number of COVID-19 cases is skyrocketing, the impact on local schools has been minimal. Of the 66 new cases in Lake County since Aug. 22, 11 have been in area schools.
Madison Central has reported two, Rutland has reported six, Chester has reported three and Oldham-Ramona has not had anyone affiliated with the school test positive.
"That's definitely a nice thing," said Oldham-Ramona Superintendent Mike Fischer when reporting his school's current status.
Since early August, the state Department of Health has been posting information on a weekly basis regarding the number of cases in South Dakota schools. As of Sept. 19, 963 cases have been identified in schools. Of these, 678 have recovered.
The bar graph used for these reports does not distinguish between students and staff. With the exception of one week, the numbers have been steadily increasing since the first week reported, Aug. 9-15. During the most recent week reported, Sept. 13-19, 261 cases were identified in South Dakota schools.
Fischer acknowledged school officials have been concerned at times because students were in close contact with individuals who had been tested, usually family members. However, precautions initially taken have been eased at the recommendation of the DOH.
Previously, if a family member was being tested, students were asked to stay home. That is no longer necessary, but families do have the option of keeping children at home if they have concerns.
"Until there is a positive case, we're not looking at close contacts," Fischer explained.
Like other schools in the area, masks are recommended but not required. As a result, only a few staff members wear them regularly, but most keep them handy to wear if they will be in close contact with students, according to Fischer. Similarly, few students wear masks, though they are more prevalent in elementary school than in middle school or high school.
Fischer believes a slightly lower school enrollment this year is actually a boon when it comes to combatting the coronavirus.
"Our small class size has been very beneficial as far as social distancing," he explained. Students are able to spread out in the classrooms.
While the Oldham-Ramona School District has not seen any cases to date, teachers are working to prepare for that possibility. They are working to get their materials online so that, should it be necessary for students to work from home, they will be able to get the materials, complete the work and return their assignments to teachers, Fischer indicated.
All things considered, things are going pretty well at Rutland, according to the school district's new superintendent, Brian Brosnahan. Four students and two staff did test positive, but as of Tuesday, only one case was active.
Brosnahan said he has been communicating with families, keeping them in the information loop. The school is also following CDC guidelines regarding quarantines and student attendance.
"I don't think the process is perfect, by any means, but based on CDC and DOH guidelines, things are going relatively well," he indicated.
He said that when he learns of a positive case, he emails families and asks them to monitor their children. He also identifies situations in which he will make personal contact with families.
"If their child has been designated as a close contact, I will follow up with them directly," Brosnahan said.
Due to the need to maintain confidentiality, these calls can be somewhat sensitive. Thus far, the response from families has been mixed, according to Brosnahan.
The school is working to accommodate students who have to miss classes. Thus far, they have been able to participate via Zoom, he explained.
School morale has not been affected by the appearance of COVID-19. Few wear masks, which are recommended but not required, and students continue to be involved in school activities. This week, the Rutland School District is holding homecoming festivities.
"The kids are excited to be part of what we're doing this week," Brosnahan said.
He said school officials are working to keep students safe while recognizing their need to be socially connected with one another. He is pleased with staff efforts to find that balance.
Chester Superintendent Heath Larson reported three positive cases in the entire district, including the cyber school and colonies. He declined to provide a breakdown of cases, but he did indicate it was not necessary to quarantine any students as a result of close contact with an infected individual.
"We're sticking to our starting school plan," he stated, noting that while the school looks and feels different, mitigation efforts are working "pretty well."
When an individual does test positive, Larson said, the practice is to contact staff and the parents of students who are in the building. A notice is not sent district-wide.
To date, there has been little response from parents. He said parents are asked to be aware of potential exposure and of the virus' symptoms.
"It's simply a notification to be watchful," Larson said.
Like other districts, masks are recommended not required. The exception is while students are being transported to and from school. Because social distances cannot be maintained, masks are required.
In school, most staff members wear some form of PPE, whether a mask or face shield, according to Larson. With students, this varies. Elementary students are more likely to wear masks than middle school or high school students.
Larson did note that all students and staff have desk barriers which do provide an additional level of protection. He's hesitant to say either the desk barriers or masks make a difference. However, he does stand behind the school's plan.
"One could say the plan is working because we've had such a small number of cases," Larson indicated.