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12% of Aberdeen Students Learning Remotely; School Changes Quarantine Rules to Keep Teachers in Building

I seem to recall hearing last month that 7% of my fellow Aberdeen parents had joined my household in choosing online courses for the first quarter of pandemic learning in our school district. At last night’s Aberdeen school board meeting, superintendent Dr. Becky Guffin reported that number has grown to 12%:

Enrollment numbers include the 558 students who are presently enrolled as online students. For now, she said, 235 elementary, 118 middle school and 205 high school students are enrolled in online classes. That’s about 12% of the enrolled students.

Guffin said there were students who transferred into the district specifically to take online courses and others who transferred to a smaller school districts. Some who initially signed up for online classes also changed their minds and chose in-person instruction. For example, she said, 50 students signed up for online classes the week before school started and 30 decided to change their enrollment to in-person instruction [Elisa Sand, “Preliminary Enrollment Down 5 Students at Aberdeen Public School District,” Aberdeen American News, 2020.09.14].

I am pleased to see that the school district is trying to be more flexible than its original announcement of online options indicated. The contract we signed to receive online courses for the first nine weeks indicated we would not be allowed to switch back to in-person learning until October 16, the beginning of the second nine-week school term.

I am less pleased to see that, because we lack substitute teachers and the coronavirus relief funds to recruit more help, the Aberdeen school district is weakening its stance against coronavirus and exempting all of its staff from some coronavirus precautions:

In other action at the meeting, the school board approved a policy that would designate staff and teachers at the district as critical infrastructure workers. This allows the district some flexibility with those staff who are placed in quarantine because of close contacts with another person who tests positive for COVID-19.

Guffin said that with the designation, the employees who are asymptomatic could be allowed to return to work with several conditions. Those include constant monitoring of any symptom development, wearing a mask at all times, keeping social distance and cleaning their work environment [Sand, 2020.09.14].

That new policy was presented in the August 24 meeting agenda:

To ensure continuity of operations of essential functions, the Aberdeen School District designates all employees as critical infrastructure workers for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.The Aberdeen School District does not have available the necessary substitute teachers in sufficient numbers, nor the necessary personnel to fill in for absent staff members, to keep the school system in operation. The CDC advises that critical infrastructure workers may be permitted to continue work following potential exposure to COVID-19, provided they remain asymptomatic and additional precautions are implemented to protect them and the community.

A potential exposure means being a household contact or having close contact within 6 feet of an individual with confirmed or suspected COVID-19. The timeframe for having contact with an individual includes the period of time of 48 hours before the individual became symptomatic. Critical infrastructure workers who have had an exposure but remain asymptomatic will adhere to the following practices prior to and during their work shift:

  • Pre-Screen: School nurses will measure the employee’s temperature and assess symptoms prior to them starting work.
  • Regular Monitoring: As long as the employee doesn’t have a fever or symptoms, they should self-monitor under the supervision of their employer’s occupational health program.
  • Wear a Mask: The employee will wear a face mask at all times while in the workplace for 14 days after last exposure.
  • Social Distance: The employee should maintain 6 feet and practice social distancing as work duties permit in the workplace.
  • Disinfect and Clean work spaces: All work areas such as offices, bathrooms, common areas, and shared equipment will be cleaned routinely [“Designation of Critical Workers,” draft policy, as presented in agenda packet to Aberdeen School Board, 2020.08.24].

Evidently the reality of quarantine for close contacts hit the school board square in the eyes: there’s no way we can safely deal with every close contact to contain the coronavirus and still have a quorum of teachers in the building. We could have spent the summer preparing for our teaching corps to teach safely and remotely from home at a moment’s notice throughout the school year, but we apparently couldn’t afford the tech resources (both gear and professional support) and the paradigm shift to pursue that course. So absent a workable safe plan, we’ll just lower our standards, put more teachers and lunch ladies and kids at more risk, and hope Dr. Fauci brings us his Wonder Shots before too many more of us get sick and suffer.

And hey, would a paradigm shift to a year of online education or hybrid learning schedules have been so hard? Online education has its challenges, but some kids are finding they aren’t just adapting; they are thriving and performing better than they do in the traditional classroom:

For this year, which is my first year of high school, I’ve had a lot more meetings over Zoom alongside the Schoology work. I have to check in every day, things like that. Last year, all I had to do was fill out an attendance sheet of what we did on a school day and send it into the teacher. It’s a lot more robust now. These days, I can expect to talk to my teachers every day.

I didn’t expect to enjoy online classes as much as I have. At first, I was pretty frustrated. It felt like a raw deal to have to do schoolwork while also not being able to see my friends every day. The best part, by far, is that I typically finish all of my work by around 10 in the morning, rather than 3 in the afternoon. Like, I’ll wake up at 7:30 and be done with school before the morning is over. When it started, both my parents and I were wondering if we were screwing up. Like, “Are we missing something here?” But no, that’s just kinda how it works when you’re out of a classroom.

I have ADHD, and I’ve been able to focus on my schoolwork so much better now that there’s not a constant commotion around me. That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve been able to get the work done so much faster. I don’t have to worry about people talking or other background noise. One of the things that has always bothered me is the buzzing from the fluorescent lights. That’s been eliminated entirely. I’ve also noticed that my grades have improved since pivoting to distance learning, though I’m not sure if that’s because they’ve been giving us less work or that I’ve just been able to concentrate better [Jacob, age 14, from Minnesota, in Luke Winkie, “Meet the Students Thriving in Remote Learning,” Vox, 2020.09.14].

None of us enjoy the disruptions coronavirus has brought to our lives. But we must meet these challenges with a willingness to change our normal behavior and try new ways of learning, working, and living. Instead of increasing risk to preserve some semblance of status quo practices, we need to reduce risk invest in viable alternative ways to run our schools, our businesses, and our communities.


  1. o 2020-09-15 21:59

    The Watertown School Board passed a similar measure at their Monday night meeting.

    I would also still argue that the largest reason for schools operating as close to “normal” as they are is the need for a safe place for children while their parents return to work. Economics period.

  2. jerry 2020-09-15 22:22

    Of the 12%, I wonder how many have a parent or both parents that may be out of work or are being with a grandparent. Of course, we have no daycare or any kind of place for our children to be watched…except for school. Our economics are in a very bad place now and will just keep getting worse as this virus continues to spin out of control. 200,00 now dead, what a milestone.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-09-16 07:41

    O, did the school boards get new direction from the ASBSD or the DOE that prompted the critical infrastructure worker designation, or are they just being hit by the reality of coronavirus locally? How many cases are there in the Watertown district?

  4. o 2020-09-16 10:00

    Cory, I don’t have good answers. After I saw that Aberdeen had taken the same steps as Watertown (and others?), I guessed at some coordination. I don’t know if that was from among the regional ad-hoc group of Superintendents or from more official state organizations. Watertown’s COVID numbers, I believe, are right in there with Aberdeen’s. it is hard to pinpoint an exact number for privacy reasons. Some of our students absent are from contact tracing quarantine requests — not necessarily positive individual tests or symptom flairs.

    big picture, I took the new designation as worrisome. On face, it is setting aside a more cautious, protective policy of staff (and student/community) protection. To me it is an indication that our school leaders do not see things getting better and are preparing for some tougher times ahead. That should be no surprise: as the state goes, as do the schools. If the virus is spreading unchecked in SD, that HAS to affect our schools. It is also an indication that keeping schools up and running in as close as a “traditional” setting is a priority. I have posted before that reason is driven by daycare/economics, and I still hold that to be the main reason. However, having a safe place, a place to get a hot meal, a place for the best learning practices to take place is important; I just don’t think that is main driver of the policy decisions.

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