COVID closes school doors

23 cases, all but three in Memorial, prompts full return to distance learning, including for elementary students

by Tom Coombe
Middle and high school students in Ely transitioned to distance learning this week, and now elementary students are following suit.
A two-week “reset” was implemented in the Memorial Building, where nearly nine of 10 students were in quarantine at one point during the week because of COVID-19 outbreak that included 20 cases within the building.
In a surprising move, the Ely School District announced Wednesday that Washington Elementary would also close to in-person learning until Apr. 12, although only three cases were reported in the building and none since Monday.
The moves come amid a sudden outbreak that began the week of Mar. 15 and snowballed within days, prompting the school district to switch learning models for students in grades 6-12, effective Mar. 19.
By Monday, 87 percent of the high school students were asked to quarantine because of exposure to a COVID-19 positive individual, according to superintendent Erik Erie.
Middle and high school students remain scheduled to return to in-person learning Apr. 6 and student activities are slated to resume the same day.
But in the elementary school, students in grades K-5 were in school Thursday for the last time in 17 days, as the school held a preparation day for teachers Friday and was set to begin distance learning for the second time this school year on Monday, with a return date of Apr. 12 announced.
In a letter to elementary parents Wednesday, principal Anne Oelke said the decision to keep elementary students out of school was made after a consultation with St. Louis County Public Health.
“The majority of the positive COVID cases are in the Memorial Building, however we are watching the siblings of the families very closely and are anticipating further spread of COVID,” said Oelke.
Given the jump in cases over a short amount of time, Oelke said the district decided “to implement a reset in the Washington Elementary building.”
It means Ely’s youngest students will learn remotely for the next two weeks, and the overlap with the Memorial reset means no students at all will be on campus the week of Mar. 29.
It was not immediately clear if Ely area health care providers were consulted, or if they recommended the move to full distance learning, at least on a temporary basis, in the Ely district.
The rise in cases within the school was attributed in part to social gatherings and came after the entire district had gone nine straight weeks without a positive case.
Overall, there have been 38 COVID-19 cases among school students and staff during the 2020-21 school year, with 23 coming since mid-March.
The outbreak has caught the attention of county public health officials, who issued a news release Wednesday indicating that Ely has had 33 COVID-19 cases in the last week, roughly 15 percent of the caseload in the entire county.
School board members also weighed in Monday during their monthly study session, where superintendent Erik Erie, Oelke and high school principal Megan Anderson all addressed the latest developments.
“There’s certainly a lot that’s happened in the last few days,” said Erie.
That included the March 18 decision to move the high school to distance learning.
“When we made that decision we had jumped up to eight positive cases that week,” said Erie. “We had multiple groups in quarantine. We felt it was really critical that we notify students and families so we could start the next day. We thought it was very important. It really all went pretty fast.”
On the day, the district announced the Memorial would move to distance learning, Erie indicated that high school activities would continue until March 22.
That allowed Ely’s high school boys basketball team to host its scheduled playoff game with Lakeview Christian Academy that evening, and despite several players in quarantine, the Wolves prevailed 65-50.
But the following day, school officials pulled the plug on the boys basketball season and the Timberwolves forfeited a Mar. 20 Section 7A playoff contest to North Woods.
The role of athletics, if any, in the spread of COVID-19 was one topic of discussion Monday with board chairman Ray Marsnik, citing press reports including a television feature on 60 Minutes, asking if any of Ely’s cases “are linked with athletic activities.”
“I don’t know if we can really answer that,” said Oelke. “It’s kind of intertwined with everything else going on.”
Oelke also said that despite encouragement from the Minnesota Department of Health that high school athletes get tested for COVID-19 as often as once a week, Oelke said “we can’t require anybody to test, ever.”
The district has made saliva testing available for school teachers and staff for several weeks, while numerous students bombarded area health care facilities Monday after being quarantine.
That prompted a meeting between school and health care officials late in the day that led to new messaging, including calls for families to pursue saliva testing options rather than going to the clinic, or perhaps even testing on the school campus.
“They were very overwhelmed with all of that,” said Erie. “They were very overwhelmed up at the clinic and hospital with calls and inquires about testing, and a lot came from our messaging.”
Erie added “we’re trying to figure out a way how the school can do some of that testing rather than send everybody to the hospital.”
Also at issue Monday was district policy to require a 14-day quarantine period for anyone exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19.
The 14-day requirement is at odds with several area school districts, which allow students to return to school after 10 days without a test, or as little as seven days, if the person tests negative for COVID-19.
While the Minnesota Department of Health deems the 14-day period “safest,” it allows for the shorter quarantine periods and those have also been recommended by several local health care officials.
After questioning by Marsnik, who said “I understand there are schools in our area that have gone to 10 and seven (day quarantines),” Erie responded “there are those options out here. Right now it’s pretty close to 50-50.
But Erie said that the county’s public health department recommends the 14-day period remain “given the condition we’re in” but said it could be revisited.
School board member Darren Visser suggested a change and asked for more flexibility.
“Next time something comes up that isn’t to the extreme, is it a possibility in those situations that maybe then we could have a 10-day period or something different,” said Visser
Visser added “I think of the mental health of our students. We know there’s a mental health crisis and I know our ultimate goal is to get kids in school. For some kids, school is the best place, the safest place they can be. The longer we have them out, the harder it is for them.”
Visser also pressed to move the discussion away from shorter quarantine periods for high school athletes.
“There’s a lot more than the athletic end to it,” said Visser. “Mental health is a huge piece. I don’t want to get so bogged down in athletics.”
Marsnik also insisted the discussion was not linked to athletics.
“If we were to lower the quarantine period it would be the same for everybody,” said Marsnik.
Anderson said “I just sent home 300 kids, and the comments I get are upset about a game.”
Erie told the board “we’ll continue to review it but I don’t see that changing in the near future.”