The Wagner Community School District decided Monday to move its students and staff from in-person classes to remote learning until at least Oct. 12 after the number of students and staff testing positive for COVID-19 and in quarantine for the disease was deemed too high to safely continue with large numbers of people in school buildings.
Shad Storley, superintendent for the Wagner Community School, told the Mitchell Republic that the administrative decision came Monday after consultation with district officials and local health care professionals.
“Starting late last week, we were contacted that we had two staff members that were positive, and then it just kind of mushroomed from there,” Storley said.
The district has eight cases of students who have tested positive for COVID-19, along with two staff members. In addition to the positive cases, there were over 100 students in quarantine due to close contact circumstances. Positive cases in students have been found at the elementary school, middle school and high school levels.
Those numbers forced the district, which has a kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment of 819, to move to its Phase 3 of reopening. The district at first considered moving to Phase 2 of reopening, which would see students in live classes on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and at home on Wednesdays, which Storley would help reduce the viral load on the district.
But further consideration and a number of affected day care staff led the administration to move even further to Phase 3, which moves students in the district to remote learning.
“Originally we went to Phase 2, but over the weekend we found out that daycare (staff) had been affected,” Storley said. “Unfortunately what we are learning with COVID-19 is the domino effect that occurs, and that led us to make the decision Monday to go to Phase 3.”
Under Phase 3, students remain at home and attend classes through a remote program like the one many districts, including Wagner, adopted when the disease first arrived on the scene in the second semester of the 2019-20 school year. Teachers who are unaffected by positive tests or quarantine will remain in their classrooms to facilitate lessons for their students, while teachers who have tested positive or are in quarantine will conduct lessons from their own homes, Storley said.
The district also postponed all activities, including student athletics, until district officials re-evaluate the situation over the course of the two-week shift away from live classes.
The decision to make the move to remote learning a two-week period was part of the original school reopening plan developed after the school moved away from in-person classes last year. The time frame coincides with the estimated incubation period for COVID-19, Storley said.
“When we made our back to school plan, if we went to Phase 3, we would go for two weeks. That number is based around the incubation period for the virus,” Storley said.
While there are no specific target numbers or threshold the district is looking for to resume live classes, school leaders will consult with a number of entities before they approve allowing students and staff to fully return.
“It will be evaluated toward the end of (the two-week period). We’re working with our local health care facilities, like Wagner Community Memorial Hospital (Avera) and Indian Health Services, which have been great in helping us get through this,” Storley said.
Like many other districts, Wagner Community School has had its fair share of public discourse over COVID-19 protocols, including face masks. Storley said the district opened the school year with a strong recommendation for wearing masks. The minutes from a Sept. 14 meeting of the Wagner Community School Board of Education, posted on the district website, indicate the board voted to approve a mask mandate for all students and staff beginning Sept. 16 by a 4-3 vote. Also at that meeting, the board approved a mask mandate for all spectators and participants at sporting events by a vote of 7-0.
Minutes from a special board meeting Sept. 17 indicate the board voted to rescind the district mask mandate motion by a 5-1 vote, with one absent, following public commentary from about 28 members of the public, among other business. The board also voted at that meeting to rescind the motion that mandated masks for spectators and participants at school sporting events by 5-1 vote, with one member absent.
A two-thirds majority vote was required to rescind the two motions.
Storley said the mask issue has been a sensitive topic throughout the district, but the school is again back to strongly recommending masks. He declined to speculate if not having a mask mandate to start the year has affected the number of cases or quarantines.
“There was a change for a brief time, then we went back to strongly recommended,” Storley said. “(The students) I see who want to wear masks are going it faithfully, but it’s not across the board.”
The change in remote learning is disappointing for everyone, Storley said, but students and staff are adjusting the best they can and hoping for a return to school buildings as soon as possible.
“I think our students and staff have handled it very well. Schools are built to have kids in them, so doing this is very difficult,” Storley said.
If taking a two-week break from in-person classes is a step that will help ensure student, staff and community safety, it’s a step worth taking, he said.
“We’re hoping that going to distance learning will put us in a better place when we come back on Oct. 13,” Storley said. “We have isolated and quarantined and done our due diligence in coming back. We had six weeks of school and we’re hoping to bring the kids back to where we can be in-person and hopefully we don’t have to go this route again, but there is no crystal ball for these times.”