CORONAVIRUS

Solon schools determined to keep kids in classrooms

District reopened offer for students to choose virtual option

First-grader Vera Horsfield plays Thursday on the monkey bars at Lakeview Elementary School in Solon. Students are separ
First-grader Vera Horsfield plays Thursday on the monkey bars at Lakeview Elementary School in Solon. Students are separated into five groups and rotate through a different recess zone each day in an effort to minimize exposure between classes at the school, which currently has full-time in-person learning. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Update: This story was updated Friday with current numbers for students and staff in quaratine and with positive COVID-19 tests. A previous version only inlcluded numbers from a daily “snapshot” of quarantine and COVID-19 data the school district provides. This version also was updated with Friday’s 14-day percent positivity rate for Johnson County.

SOLON — An anonymous group of parents is petitioning the Solon Community School District to join the increasing number of districts across the state seeking a waiver to move classes online temporarily, but district officials remain confident they can provide in-person instruction as safely as possible as COVID-19 surges.

As of Friday morning, 183 students and nine staff in the district were in quarantine, according to district Superintendent Davis Eidahl. Thirty-six students and five staff members had tested positive for COVID-19, he said.

Johnson County’s average 14-day positivity rate on Friday was 15.3 percent, according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

For districts to qualify for virtual instruction under state rules, counties should have between a 15 and 20 percent 14-day positivity rate and student absences above 10 percent, not including students in quarantine.

Band and choir was suspended until Nov. 30, after 15 choir students were quarantined when a student tested positive. The eighth-grade girls basketball team — a total of 20 students — also quarantined after one player tested positive.

Solon is following guidance from the Iowa Department of Public Health about when to quarantine. It says that people who are in close contact with someone who has the disease do not need to quarantine if all involved were wearing masks correctly.

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As cases of COVID-19 began rising dramatically earlier this month, Eidahl said the district reopened a virtual learning option to families, but for now remains largely in-person.

About 20 students have taken the district up on that online offer, joining 80 students already enrolled in virtual learning since the beginning of the year. There are 1,500 students in the district.

The 15 days students are back in class between Thanksgiving break and the winter holiday will be “crucial,” Eidhal said.

The administration team is taking into account student and staff absences, the number of positive cases in the district and indications of community spread within schools when considering virtual learning.

Students out sick combined with students in quarantine is at 20 percent, Eidhal said.

“If we reach 30, that alone wouldn’t close us,” Eidhal said. But that combined with staff shortages might force a shift to virtual, he said.

As of Thursday afternoon, 55 school districts in Iowa had active waivers for virtual instruction from the Iowa Department of Education.

The Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and College Community and Clear Creek Amana school districts are all in temporary virtual learning until Nov. 30.

Johnson County Public Health community health manager Sam Jarvis said the Solon school district is working closely with the department to make decisions about in-person learning.

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“Our stance has always been to be as supportive as possible for our schools. They’re in a pretty impossible position,” Jarvis said.

A small group of anonymous parents is asking the district to move to temporary virtual learning as cases of COVID-19 increase across the state.

In an email to district officials and school board members Tuesday, shared with The Gazette, the parents asked the district to move to virtual learning as hospitals become overrun by COVID-19 patients.

» READ THE LETTER: Read the email sent by parents to the school district

“Unfortunately, I’m not sure what to do with anonymous emails,” school board President Tim Brown said. “Better if you’re willing to put your name to it and have a conversation.”

Brown said he is concerned with the level of community spread in Johnson County, and that hospitals are near capacity.

“We have to do those things we can to minimize transmission: Wear a mask, socially distance and wash your hands,” Brown said.

The superintendent has the authority to request a virtual waiver. If he feels another waiver is necessary, he should consult with the school board, Brown said.

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“We don’t want to delay it by scheduling a special board meeting. We trust the superintendent to work with Public Health to make that determination if it’s safe or not to stay in-person.”

On Wednesday, a dozen Solon parents called The Gazette in support of keeping students in in-person learning.

Nicole Kuennen, a parent of three elementary students in the Solon district, said that as a day care provider at Solon Learning Academy, it would be “overwhelming” to take on families in need of child care if Solon went virtual.

Her daughter, Kapri, 7, who deals with severe anxiety, thrives on routine, Kuennen said. And being back in school has helped her, she said.

Kuennen said her family has had to quarantine six times since the pandemic started in March — a total of 12 weeks.

“I’ve missed a lot of work,” she said. “But we’ve never been positive. We want to keep our schools open. It’s so much more than just learning. It’s their mental state.”

Comments: (319) 398-8411; grace.king@thegazette.com

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