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Wrenshall sets new district COVID-19 guidelines

Substitute teacher pay, masking and isolation changes and vaccination requirements were action items at the Wrenshall School Board meeting Monday evening.

Wrenshall School
Wrenshall School
File / Pine Journal
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The continuing COVID-19 pandemic and its effects was the central theme for several business items the Wrenshall School Board acted on at its regular board meeting Monday, Jan 10.

The board approved several suggested changes to the district's Back to School Safe Plan, approved a measure that ensures they will not have to enact the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's emergency temporary standard and voted to increase pay for substitute teachers.

Masking and isolation changes

Since students have returned to school from winter break, the district has required masking. The district closed early for winter break due to the number of students and teachers testing positive for the virus. The district's current plan is to require masking whenever 5% of students and staff test positive for the virus. Although the district didn't quite meet that threshold, which equates to 22 people, upon returning from break, with 10 positive cases and 17 pending test results, the board previously approved a buffer period to allow results to come back.

Less than a week later, Superintendent Kimberly Belcastro said the numbers are still below the 22-person threshold with 10 positive cases and 28 people who are currently awaiting test results.

"Of those out waiting for results, at least 23 of them have family members with COVID, so there's a high chance that they will also get COVID," Belcastro said. "We have so many students out now, teachers have said there are so few people here because they or their family members are out sick."

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"How many are actually sick though?" asked board chair Misty Bergman. "I've heard that some of those tests aren't very accurate."

"Some have symptoms, some are asymptomatic. But several are also in close contact with people who are sick," Belcastro said.

With that in mind, Belcastro recommended the board change to the district's masking policy to go into effect for two weeks if 5% of the students and staff test positive or are pending test results.

"I think it's important to maintain this or else we're going to be losing so many people, both staff and students," Belcastro said.

The board also considered changes to the Back to School Safe Plan plan about shortening the isolation period for staff. Belcastro presented the board with the recommendations from the COVID-19 team that called for a change from 10 isolation days to five for staff who test positive. Several board members argued that change should apply for students, as well. Another change was that anyone, vaccinated or unvaccinated, exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19, masked or unmasked, is required to isolate for five days and then test negative for the virus on the fifth day before returning to school, provided they do not develop symptoms.

"I'd like to bring these changes back to the nurse tomorrow to walk her through it," Belcastro said. "There are significant changes and I think our nurse's guidance needs to be part of this as well."

"But this is our job to make these decisions," Bergman said. "And we’ve all been able to read for the past year and we’ve all been able to experience life and we know what has been going on and we need to keep our kids in school. We’re trying to make it the easier to follow."

The board approved the masking and Back to School Safe Plan changes unanimously.

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No vaccination requirement for staff

Previously there was a question of if and how the school district would meet the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration's emergency temporary standard. The standard went into effect Monday and requires employers with over 100 employees to develop, implement and enforce a mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy or undergo regular COVID-19 testing. According to Belcastro, the district received some welcome news.

"We found out that school board members do not have to be counted as employees, so we can be spared from this if the board passes a resolution that we have under 100 employees and then don't have to follow the stringent policy," Belcastro said. "We were pleasantly surprised to hear that at a webinar earlier today."

Board member Cindy Bourn was also pleased with the news.

"It saves a lot of record keeping and a lot of unnecessary testing," Bourn said. "It saves a lot of having to maintain health records on adults, a lot of hassle and headache. I'm all in favor of saying we have 95 staff and therefore aren't covered by this requirement."

The board passed the resolution unanimously.

Increasing substitute teacher pay

With so many staff members out sick due to COVID-19, substitute teachers are in great demand. After checking with surrounding districts, Belcastro said that several, including Cloquet and Moose Lake, have shifted pay to $150 a day to entice and compensate more subs.

"We received a letter from one of our regular substitutes and as you can see, it's a growing concern," Belcastro said. "Several have said they love working with our district, but the lower pay is an issue for them."

Board member Nicole Krisak said she'd support the raise, even when not in a pandemic.

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"As a parent, when we have teachers out and our kids are stuck in study halls, they're not learning," Krisak said. "There aren't enough teachers who can come in and teach class. I think we should raise it and hopefully this becomes an opportunity for us to bring in more subs."

The board unanimously approved an increase in pay for substitute teachers from $125 to $150 a day for the remainder of the school year.

Teri Cadeau is a general assignment and neighborhood reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. Originally from the Iron Range, Cadeau has worked for several community newspapers in the Duluth area for eight years including: The Duluth Budgeteer News, Western Weekly, Weekly Observer, Lake County News-Chronicle and occasionally, the Cloquet Pine Journal. When not working, she's an avid reader and crafter.
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