Six students have COVID-19 and 35 students are in quarantine in the little over a week since the Esko School District started classes, according to school district officials.

Superintendent Aaron Fischer updated the school board at a special meeting Wednesday, Sept. 16, when the total number of students with the virus in the district was five. He updated the figure to six Thursday when the Pine Journal reached out to ask follow-up questions.

Five of the six students who tested positive for the virus are in grades 7-12, and one is an elementary student, Fischer said.

With all of the students who tested positive, either the Minnesota Department of Health called the school to notify officials of a positive test, or the family self-reported.

"We are following all protocols," Fischer said. "So far it is working. We are not seeing any spread in the school at this point. All of the cases have been brought into the district."

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Protocol for a positive case

Once the school has been notified of a COVID-19 positive case during the school day, the individual is brought to an isolation room until a parent can pick them up.

In those situations, Fischer said school officials dismissed class so custodians could clean. Staff use a machine and chemicals that can kill viruses within a minute, he said. Once the room is cleaned and aired out, the students are brought back.

Public health officials have advised people who get tested for COVID-19 to isolate themselves until they receive their test results, but the protocol Esko has in place implies that students get tested for the virus and attend school in person. When the Pine Journal asked Fischer if officials have had to pull students from class after learning they tested positive, he said he could not confirm or deny.

Fischer told board members the nurse's office has been very busy. In addition to the usual bumps and scrapes, the nurse performs COVID-19 tracing for any positive individual in the school. Fischer has helped with contact tracing, as well. Teachers and bus drivers keep seating charts to help make the contact tracing process easier.

The news comes a little over a week after the 2020-2021 school year began with elementary students attending class in person and middle and high school students using a hybrid model. Officials switched secondary students from the in-class learning model to the hybrid model before school began.

Greg Hexum, high school principal, told the board he thinks the district chose the right plan with the hybrid learning model for secondary students. Not only does the hybrid plan allow for increased precaution such as social distancing, but it also allows students in quarantine to continue to participate with their classrooms online.

When to switch learning models

All of the departments are concerned about the upcoming cold and flu season affecting staff attendance and leaving the school short-staffed, Fischer said. Symptoms of the common cold and influenza are similar to COVID-19, so staff will be required to quarantine until they receive a negative COVID-19 test. So far, no staff members have tested positive or had to quarantine, Fischer said.

“If that happens we may need to go to another learning model,” Fischer said. “It might be that we don't have anyone to teach the classes or drive the buses or feed the students.” He urged parents to have a plan in place for their children in case the district needs to move quickly. He said it's possible all students might need to switch to distance learning at some point.

There are several variables that are taken into consideration when or if a switch to a different learning model is made. Besides the Carlton and St. Louis County case rates, officials will look at the current Esko School District's COVID-19 case and quarantine counts for students and staff members, said Fischer. He said they also need to make sure that the departments can be fully staffed.

“We didn't think this was going to happen so fast. It caught us off guard,” board chairperson Jeff Salo said. “We will do what we think is best for the students.”

Officials look at St. Louis County data because there are 282 students enrolled at Esko from outside the district, many from St. Louis County. The district also has many staff members who reside in the neighboring county.

The Carlton County case rate per 10,000 people is 8.16 and St. Louis County is 13.29, as of Sept. 17. However, it's important to note the case rate data lags behind by 12 days. The rates reported Sept. 17 cover the period from Aug. 23 to Sept. 5.

The district would have to move to hybrid for all students if the case rate per 10,000 people reaches 20. Middle and high school students would move to remote learning at 30 cases per 10,000 residents, and elementary students would make the jump to remote learning if the case rate hits 50 per 10,000 people, according to MDH.

Elsewhere in Carlton County, Cloquet's Churchill Elementary School has one confirmed COVID-19 case, according to Superintendent Michael Cary.

Barnum and Moose Lake school districts do not have any confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases, their superintendents said.