COVID-19 forces mode change for USD 373

Chad Frey
Newton High School and Chisholm Middle School  will move to a hybrid school model -- half of students in school and the other half learning online -- Thursday. The remainder of the district will move to the hybrid model  Monday as CMS and NHS will move to remote only.

With COVID-19 numbers trending in the wrong direction — The Harvey County Health Department reported 63 new cases found since Oct. 5 — the Newton Board of Education chose to put grades seven through 12 into a hybrid learning mode starting Oct. 15. — and to hybrid learning for K-6 students starting Oct. 19 when upper grades will move to remote only.

“We were sitting pretty good in Harvey County, until last week. The wheels came off a little bit,” said Fred Van Rankin, superintendent of Newton Unified School District 373.

In hybrid learning mode, all students in the district flexible plan are split into two groups — each group is assigned two days each week to be in school buildings with three days of online-only classes. Students who enrolled in online-only at the beginning of the school year are not affected by the change.

The board has, in the past, made the decisions on an every-other-week basis and not jumped more than one category of its color-coded operations plan.

“I would like to do one week right now,” said Mallory Morton, member of the board of education. “When we see these numbers changing so much I want to keep a closer eye on it to see what direction we are going to go. I personally would like to ... come back and re-evaluate what we are doing. I would not say that we take the Bethel numbers and discount them, because they are in our community.”

“The Bethel cluster has not helped our numbers any, but that is nothing that we can control. We just have to deal with it and those numbers are in our counts,” Van Rankin said.

That placed Newton USD 373 in the red of one of its evaluated statistical categories. The percent of positive tests in Harvey County moved from 4.9% to 10.75% in about a week — placing the district in an orange category. Staff and student attendance was between green and yellow.

“We have risen quite a bit, and there is a lot of concern in the community,” Van Rankin said.

As of Monday, 32 of the nearly 50 reported cases in the Bethel cluster were in Harvey County.

“Those kids are in our community, they did not just get here, they have been here a while,” Van Rankin said. “Some [Bethel students] have been on our campuses.”

“When they have outbreaks, it affects our kids,” said board president Matt Treaster.

Eight cases have been found in the school district in the past two weeks. Van Rankin said the district has seen one recovery. On Monday, Santa Fe Middle School notified parents of an exposure at the school — the individual was last reported to be on campus on Oct. 2.

A positive case found in a school results in quarantines — according to administration, one case resulted in 42 people being sent home — and contact tracings at the school level.

“When we have a case, [Nurse Karen] Lehman works with the administrator and staff that may be involved and they go through all the lists of kids that [person] might have been in close contact with in minutes of any one point of time,” Van Rankin said. “They start making calls based on those lists. They work with the Harvey County Health Department, and they have been swamped.”

According to district administration, at this time there are no documented transmissions of COVID-19 in the school system.

This week the district was operating in a “green” mode, flexible plan with students in school all day, every day. Moving to a “yellow” mode means pre-K through sixth grade in school buildings as normal and sixth through 12th grade are in buildings twice a week and attending remotely three days each week. An “orange” designation would mean K through fifth-grade students in the flexible plan will attend in hybrid mode, while seventh through 12th-grade students attend remote only. The district also has a “red” mode of operation — online only for all students.