North Branch Schools make adjustments amid changing COVID knowledge

North Branch Area Public Schools, along with many other entities, are experiencing an extreme version of hindsight being 20/20 when it comes to the implementation of COVID policies and practices. And while for the most part the district has been extremely pleased with how everyone - students, staff, and parents alike - have stepped up and adjusted, there are still some areas where going forward, some changes have to be made.

“We’ve talked about the mitigation strategies we have put in place, and we’re confident that we have put the protocols in place to make sure we have a safe learning environment,” Superintendent Sara Paul told the School Board during their Dec. 10 meeting. “But we did have a couple areas for improvement (for when students return to in-person learning in mid-January).”

Busing protocols

From the very beginning of the school year, the district initiated procedures to try and maintain a level of social distancing on the buses while students are being transported to and from school. Included in that was altering routes so that buses are only at half capacity and assigned seating.

“I had an opportunity to ride one of our bus routes in order to try to experience what our students were experiencing,” Paul said. “Every seat had a name tag on it so students knew where to go. Students were greeted as they got on by name, and he would record absences. There were just so many great safety protocols and relational experiences in place.”

Despite that, the district did experience an extremely large number of students who had to be quarantined.

“The bus guidance reads that ‘all riders need to be quarantined for 14 days if they were on a bus for more than 30 minutes with an individual that tested positive for COVID-19.”

Based on that guidance, 168 students wound up being quarantined, resulting in a total of 1,700 missed school days.

“The reality is that not one of those students that was identified as close contacts tested positive for COVID,” Paul said.

Based on that information, Paul said she contacted the Minnesota Department of Education, who in turn relayed new guidance to be used.

“In July, what we (MDE) thought was our best thinking has evolved as they learned more about the virus,” Paul said. “But as we look at their guidance and we look at our local data, as we return to school, and students are on our buses, we are going to continue to follow the state guidelines across all of our settings, which means that all students are required to wear masks, and that physical distancing protocols will be determining our close contacts.”

Staffing shortages

As with all other districts across the state, and country for that matter, North Branch has had an issue with being able to fully staff all of the classes when in-person learning was in place.

“When we are fighting and dealing with a pandemic, we need our families to know that when students are sick, they need to stay home. And that’s the same for our staff,” Paul said. “Well, that puts staffing pressures on our system.”

To help combat that, the district has come up with what they are calling “Viking Support Stars.” What this basically entails is anyone who is interested can work on getting a substitute license in order to sub as either a teacher or support staff. 

Paul said after a couple virtual informational sessions, 12 people have started the process. Those people come from a wide spectrum of experience.

“Their stories have been inspiring to me,” Paul said. “One mom explained she is a mathematician, and she is going to work with her employer in order to be able to take vacation days in order to be part of the solution.

“It’s just one more way I am so appreciative of this community that we serve.”

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