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Our View: Little consensus, but Twin Ports and other schools are doing their best

From the editorial: "The Duluth and Hermantown districts (aren't) giving up. Like a lot of the rest of us, they (are) simply struggling to keep up."

school bus and omicron guidelines sign
John Cole/Cagle Cartoons
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Omicron case numbers are skyrocketing, and public schools, as much as anywhere, are scrambling to respond.

They’re also providing a snapshot of the inconsistent responses and the lack of consensus that have dogged decision-making throughout the pandemic, fueling frustrations and divide.

While Superior schools, for example, went back to a mask mandate this week, Duluth and Hermantown late last week abandoned contact tracing altogether. It didn't mean the Duluth and Hermantown districts were giving up. Like a lot of the rest of us, they were simply struggling to keep up.

“The week before winter break, we had just one case of COVID-19 reported in the entire school district,” Hermantown High School Principal John Muenich said in a note to parents Jan. 7. “Since returning to school on January 3rd, we have seen a significant increase in cases among students, especially at the high school. The increase has been enough that the school nurses and office staff have been struggling to keep up with communicating out individual 'close contact' notices. Throughout the school year, close contact notices have informed parents/guardians that their child has been within six feet of a potentially contagious person for fifteen minutes or longer. … We are informing all parents/guardians (now) that there is the potential your child has been (in) close contact at some point since January 3rd.”

In Duluth, some parents with multiple children in the public schools had received multiple such notices in a single day. Each notification was jarring, no doubt, but they also perhaps prompted precautions and other actions to protect schoolchildren — and their families when those children returned home at the end of each day.

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Parents in Duluth were informed Sunday to basically just start assuming their kids are in a cloud of infection all the time and at constant risk from the deadly pandemic.

“We are asking that all staff and students consider themselves exposed to COVID-19 daily,” the district advised in its “Weekly Update” newsletter Jan. 8. “With a high level of COVID-19 in our community, there is a risk of being exposed to COVID-19 everyday.”

The same newsletter announced that all student assemblies, dances, concerts, and other large gatherings in the Duluth district would be canceled indefinitely (although students still eat their lunches around crowded tables and are allowed to attend sports events).

In a likely unprecedented and until-now unfathomable move, the Duluth district also canceled final exams this month. So many students are that far behind after they and/or their teachers have been out sick. Teachers instead will be “providing additional opportunities for students to finish work and improve their grades,” the district stated.

And just what are parents supposed to do with all this? The Duluth newsletter, for one, didn’t really say, beyond the usual vaccinating, masking, testing, isolating, and quarantining recommendations. The familiar guidelines have become such moving targets, though, with updates and changes from the CDC so frequent, that many parents and others are losing faith in them.

In addition to protecting students — and all of us — “Above all, the priority of the board and of the district has been and continues to be keeping in-person learning open for all students,” Administrator Amy Starzecki wrote in a memo to families in the Superior School District on Tuesday, according to the Superior Telegram. That’s a goal for many, if not all, districts, after distance learning last year proved a disaster for many students. In Duluth and elsewhere, students have been told to be prepared for its possible return, however, as the omicron only worsens.

For public education, the struggle with omicron feels a lot like the end of a football game. The school districts hold a slim lead and are doing their best to hold on until the clock runs out with the expected peak in cases later this month. Case numbers should plummet after that, as they have in South Africa, where the variant was first identified, and elsewhere. “Experts suggest the highly contagious omicron is running out of people to infect,” was the way KSTP-TV in St. Paul explained it this week.

Until then, responses and strategies to the fast-spreading sickness may differ district to district, but there’s no reason to believe each district isn’t doing what it feels is best and right. There’s no reason not to support the difficult decisions being made with the best information available.

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