A dearth of substitute teachers combined with an increasing number of active COVID-19 cases has resulted in a return to distance learning for Oldham-Ramona School. This approach was used statewide earlier this year.

"It's been a little rough," said Superintendent Mike Fischer. "We've had quite a few cases, so we've been making decisions to keep everybody safe."

This school district closed last Monday with the hope that in-person classes could resume this week. As of Sunday morning, that plan remained intact, but by 3 p.m., it had changed. At an emergency school board meeting on Sunday evening, the decision was made not to resume classes until after the Thanksgiving break.

In a letter to parents, Fischer wrote, "We encourage all families to utilize this time to get healthy so that we can finish the first semester in-person. In order for this to happen, we need those individuals that are showing symptoms to get tested. It would also be beneficial if individuals identified as close contacts avoid getting together with each other and hanging out during this distance learning."

Fischer said that he knows both teachers and students want to return to in-person learning, but for that to happen, they need to get healthy. The school district did not see its first active case until mid-October. Since that time, they have had 22 active cases and currently have 11.

The real challenge the district faces is one that is being seen across the state: a lack of substitute teachers. While staff has been designated as essential personnel, teachers are not allowed to work if a member of their household has tested positive for COVID-19 -- even if they are asymptomatic and willing to wear a mask.

Fischer acknowledged that in some instances, it might have been possible to combine classes, but with the growing number of confirmed cases in the school, maintaining social distancing seemed a safer option. He said his staff was ready to implement distance learning as soon as the decision was made last week.

"I have to give credit to my staff," he said. "They were ready to go or needed minimal time to be ready."

He indicated the district has been preparing for this possibility since school started. The decision was made to use some Coronavirus Relief Funds to ensure that every student in the district had a device to use, should the district find it necessary to utilize remote learning.

In addition, teachers identified a learning platform they could use with students and practiced using those platforms when the classes were in-person. K-2 uses ClassDojo, which not only allows teachers to give students feedback and lets students share their learning, but also gets parents involved. Many of the other classes are using Google Classroom.

"We did a one-day training before school started," Fischer said.

The exceptions are teachers who were already using a different learning platform with which their students were familiar. They continued using those. Regardless of what platform the teachers chose, the administration had the same emphasis.

"We stressed with teachers that they needed to practice with their kids," Fischer said.

With that kind of preparation, the transition to remote learning went well last week.

"There was no hesitation," Fischer stated. "Most of the classes started first thing Monday morning."

With the lower elementary grades, it was a little more difficult, but the delay was minimal. He said many teachers are holding Zoom meetings with classes or finding other ways to meet with students who are working independently.

In addition, recognizing that some students struggled with remote learning last spring, the district hired a COVID-19 specialist/long-term sub who is contacting students and their families to emphasize the need to be in class and to complete homework. The specialist is also asking individual families what can be done to help struggling students.

Fischer said he is stressing the need to use this time to get healthy.

"We need to work together," he said.

With that in mind, the district is also doing its part to ensure students don't spread COVID-19 to the Rutland School District with which the school co-ops for sports. While Oldham-Ramona is not meeting for in-person classes, students are not permitted to attend practice at Rutland, according to Fischer.

Rutland Superintendent Brian Brosnahan reported Monday morning that the district has no active cases at this time. After a flurry of cases early in the year, Rutland went nearly a month without a single confirmed case in the building and then had a single case.

"As of this moment, the mitigation plan that is in place for Rutland seems to be working quite well," he said via email. "As we know, this can change at a moment's notice, but so far, so good."

Brosnahan attended the Sunday evening meeting of the Oldham-Ramona School Board and participated in the discussion related to the athletic cooperative, according to Fischer.

As of Monday morning, the Chester Area School District had three active cases districtwide, including students and teachers. Superintendent Heath Larson noted that number was subject to change at any time.

He did add that the school will be closed on Thursday and Friday, but that is due to a challenge in staffing, not due to an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases. For the eighth consecutive year, the Chester volleyball team will be competing at the state tournament.

Statewide, the number of active COVID-19 cases in schools dropped to 621 for the week of Nov. 1-7, according to the state Department of Health. The previous week, there were 750 active cases. Data for the week of Nov. 8-14 has not yet been reported by the DoH.

The spike in cases at Oldham-Ramona is not isolated within Lake County. As of Sunday, Lake County had 238 active cases. Overall, 688 people or one out of every 18.6 people has or has had COVID-19 since April. This number is up from 423 on Nov. 1.

Free testing will be available in Madison this Tuesday between 12-6 p.m. and Wednesday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Individuals must pre-register; more information is available at https://covid.sd.gov/testing.aspx.

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