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School district hopeful it can return to full-time on-site learning in January

By James Grob,

Charles City Superintendent of Schools Mike Fisher said Wednesday that he’s optimistic that the district will be able to return to full-time, on-site learning sometime next month.

“Hopefully in early January — maybe even the second week of January — we can get back open out of hybrid,” Fisher said. “That’s our anticipation, and we’ve been letting the school board know that we may have to schedule a special meeting to discuss reopening, if things go well.”

Fisher said that he is in contact with Floyd County Public Health officials on a regular basis.

“They’ve asked us to start the new year in hybrid for one week, and then evaluate from those first five days,” Fisher said. “We’re hoping that the current trend line holds.”

The current trend line Fisher referred to includes the county positivity rate and the student absentee rate, which have both fallen remarkably since November. Fisher said that health officials have recommended that the school district evaluate the first five days of school after Christmas break, and if the numbers continue to hold true, the district consider full-time on-campus learning.

The student absentee rate has been under 4% all this week, and the 14-day positivity rate — the rolling average of the percentage of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 in the previous 14 days in Floyd County — has remained under 10%.

The rate dropped below 10% on Saturday, the first time it has been in single digits since the end of October, when the school board approved a hybrid-decision making matrix that takes into consideration student absence rates and transmission rates within Floyd County as metrics to determine whether to remain teaching on site, to go back to the hybrid learning plan, or — in a worst-case scenario — closing school altogether and going to full remote learning.

The two biggest metrics factored into the matrix to trigger the move to full remote learning include a county positivity rate of above 20% and a student absentee rate of 10% or higher.

As of Wednesday, 10 individuals on the school district campus were in quarantine due to close contact, the lowest number since October.

After a shaky start the first month of the school year, the school district seemed to have the COVID spread well-controlled through October, with very few positive tests. Then in November, cases surged in the state and county, and in the school district as well.

“There was a point when we were honestly worried that we wouldn’t have enough teachers to staff our classes,” Fisher said. “Our student absentee rate was above 7%, and the positivity rate in the county was well over 25% for a long while.”

Before Thanksgiving, the district applied for and received a waiver from the Iowa Department of Education to go to complete online learning for two weeks. The district could use the waiver any time it wanted to, but Charles City never had to use it, as an anticipated post-Thanksgiving spike in COVID cases never came.

“The numbers are telling us that the community, our staff, our students, parents — everybody pitched in and did the wise thing over Thanksgiving — and kept us safe,” Fisher said. “That post-Thanksgiving bump never came, and we were grateful for that.”

Fisher said that the district does need to be aware of a post-Christmas spike in COVID-19 cases.

“I am imploring our community to do the same thing over Christmas break,” Fisher said. “Be wise and be safe, so that we can get our kids back in school full time, the way everyone wants it to be.”

Fisher said there are also some fears of opening in January and having to endure another spike, forcing the district to close again.

“We want to be fully open. None of us wants to be learning from home or in hybrid,” he said. “We’re doing our best to do that.”

Fisher said that he thought the staff and administration at Charles City was doing well, “all things considered,” but admitted there was a lot of tension. He said there is anxiety, frustration, fear and even anger from teachers and students alike, and that this school year has not been easy.

“We’re facing so much unknown,” Fisher said. “We’ve had to face tragedies. We’ve seen people we love get sick. We’ve seen people we love pass away. We’ve endured a lot of trauma this year, and that’s been tremendously challenging.”

However, Fisher said that COVID-19 hasn’t been able to stop the district’s vision and mission.

“I’ve watched our staff thrive, and I’ve watched our students thrive and lean into the challenge and get better,” he said. “It’s been so inspiring to see, it really shows the resilience of our people. I’m very proud of all of them.”

Fisher said that the district was “at the beginning of the end” of the COVID crisis, and urged the community to remain vigilant, and not “fumble the ball on the 1-yard line.”

“We’re asking people to make tough decisions in the temporary, in order to do what’s good for the community in the long term,” Fisher said. “We want to open our doors to students and keep them open, but we need our community’s help to do that.”