RF districts cancels

school Nov. 22-23

Rising COVID numbers, staff shortages to blame

By Sarah Nigbor

RIVER FALLS – River Falls School District made the decision to cancel school district- wide Nov. 22 and 23 due to the spike in positive COVID cases among students and staff and lack of substitute teachers.

At the Nov. 22 River Falls School Board meeting, Superintendent Jamie Benson explained the decision, which had been made Nov. 12 in order to give families time to prepare. The hope was the two extra days, added to the already scheduled Thanksgiving break, would help slow COVID transmission rates and allow district buildings to be deep-cleaned.

In the three weeks leading up to Nov. 22, positive COVID cases within RFSD boundaries (this included the general public, not just in district buildings) nearly quadrupled, from 42 on Oct. 21 to 153 on Nov. 12. Among staff and students, positive cases went from eight on Oct. 1 to 30 on Nov. 12.

In northwestern Wisconsin, Benson reported data showing that 97.5% of intensive care unit (ICU) beds in the region are in use, while 95% of 26 Twin Cities metro area hospitals are at peak staffed capacity.

In the first two weeks of November, the district had 31 unfilled teaching positions and 49 unfilled support staff positions. Benson said remaining staff have to cover the shortage by arriving early, staying late, working through prep times, doubling up classes, and skipping lunch or prep periods. While a substitute shortage was a problem before, it continues to grow. “The overall effectiveness of teaching and learning is diminished due to this problem,” Benson said in his report. “As we monitor trends and project anticipated absences, there’s a growing trajectory of concern about our ability to appropriately staff buildings.”

“The board, administration, were all hopeful that the COVID infection rates would decline to allow us to pivot to optional masks,” Benson said. “Obviously, however, the current numbers show that now is not the time to do that.”

As more people become vaccinated, such as the now eligible 5- to 11-year-old group, get boosters or choose to get their initial vaccine, hopefully transmission rates and illness severity with decrease, Benson said. He encouraged anyone with questions to talk to their primary physician.

Board Clerk Alan Tuchtenhagen said illness and COVID are indeed creating absences in the student population, but so is families pulling kids out to take vacations. He encouraged people not to do that, since it creates extra work for already stretched-thin staff.

He echoed Benson and encouraged people with questions to talk to their doctors about the vaccine, just as people talk to their doctors about other vaccines, such as flu shots, measles, mumps, etc.

“It’s never been the intention of this board to keep masks forever and we’re moving toward a point where we won’t have masks anymore,” Tuchtenhagen said. “We’re monitoring this data.”

Board Treasurer Todd Schultz said he’d like to soon have a discussion about making masking optional and wonders when that could occur.

Benson explained the current matrix in place calls for a two-week consistency of COVID case numbers, in order to avoid a yo-yo effect (masks required one week, not required the next, etc.) He assumes, now that 5- to 11-year-olds can get vaccinated, that the board will probably look at revising the matrix or dropping it altogether.

“COVID is not going anywhere,” Benson said. “It will be with us for years, or even lifetimes.

“But right now is not that time (to make masks optional) though.”

He said the board, when making that decision in the future, will need to take into account the availability of the vaccine to 5- to 11-year-olds, that they’ll need a second dose, and that vaccines aren’t considered effective until two weeks after the second dose.

Schultz said the vaccine’s eligibility to the lower grades is a difference maker for him.

Future for REN

The board voted to hire architect LHB from Minneapolis and construction manager at risk Kraus Anderson of Minneapolis, who will work with the district to develop a longrange master facility plan.

LHB would be used on projects greater than $15 million, with a 5.75% fee. Pre-referendum planning services are $16,000.

Director of Finance & Facilities Chad Smurawa said LHB comes highly recommended for its attention to detail and completion of complicated projects, plus has extensive experience in designing for K-12.

Kraus Anderson, which is familiar with RFSD, would charge $14,000 for pre-referendum planning services and a 2% construction management fee.

In the event the district decides to remodel an existing space for the Renaissance Academy (in the $500,000 to $1 million range), it will hire local firm Ross & Associates, who charges a 5% construction management fee.

Benson said the board will need to determine if the Renaissance Academy, which is currently leasing space at UWRiver Falls Hagestad Hall (262 E. Cascade Ave.), will be housed in a newly built facility or in an existing renovated space. While nothing is immediately planned, the REN needs a new home.

Secondly, the three firms will help the district develop a long-range master facilities plan to address potential building needs. They will look at enrollment projections and evaluate potential needs, such as a school forest facility, an aging bus garage, etc.

While there is no “hard project” to say yes to yet, the board will need to decide what the REN solution is, Benson said.

On Nov. 8, the Facilities Committee toured the Axemplor building (formerly Sajan) at 625 Whitetail Blvd. as a potential site for the REN.

Wildcat Pride Award

This month’s Wildcat Pride Award went to bilingual paraprofessional Nataly Gomez, who goes above and beyond by providing services not only at River Falls High School, Rocky Branch and RF4C, but at parent meetings. She translates the monthly newsletters into Spanish and makes sure all digital communications are translated as well.

Board President Stacy Johnson-Myers was heartfelt in her appreciation for Gomez.

“There’s a big difference between doing a job and serving where you are and it sounds to me like you are the kind of person who is serving wherever you’re needed and however you’re needed for the best interest of our families and our kids and our community,” she said.

Public comment

Resident Jackie Niccum made a statement on Critical Race Theory and said teachers have political agendas.

“I know you said you’re not teaching CRT, but I don’t know how you can stop teachers from having a political agenda,” Niccum said. “And it comes out in sentences periodically during a class period.”

She proposed installing cameras in classrooms.

Another resident, who only gave her first name (Stacy), asked the board to repeal the mask mandate and accused the them of losing faith in humanity and God’s plan for them.

“Will the children really tell you if they didn’t like wearing masks? … We’ve taught our children not to question authority. You are teaching them to fear others and to fear the world.”

Other business

•Gifted, Enriched & Talented Program Coordinator Abby Mazzei provided this month’s “Spotlight on Education” presentation. The program currently supports about 100 advanced learners in grades 1-7.

“Fostering curiosity, celebrating students’ strengths, developing their talents and offering opportunities for them to explore their interests helps to build confidence and extend their love of learning,” Mazzei said.

•The board approved hiring Heather Sitz as a 0.56 FTE certified occupational therapy assistant long-term substitute at Rocky Branch from Oct. 28 to Jan. 31 for Hannah Ninneman.

•The board approved hiring on-call short-term subs Bruce Weber, Tricia Elworthy, Roxanne Hable, Daren Sommerfeldt and Karen Pesik.

•The board approved a first reading of revised school board policy #461 – Wisconsin Academic Excellence Scholarship

•The board approved a revised student services secretary job description.

•The board approved the 2021-2022 school safety drill evaluations as required by state law.

•The board convened to closed session (minus Amy Halverson, who attended via phone) to discuss confidential legal matters related to possible district land lease and/or property purchase, current lease agreement and related legal matters.

Upcoming meetings

•5:45 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13 – Finance & Facilities Committee (District Office conference room)

•7 p.m. Monday, Dec. 13 – Personnel Committee (District Office conference room)

•6 p.m. Monday, Dec. 20 – regular board meeting, location to be determined

Positive COVID-19 cases in the boundaries of the River Falls School District rose from 42 to 153 in three weeks. The district’s (as a whole) population is around 24,000 people. Graph courtesy of Superintendent Jamie Benson

This graph shows the number of positive COVID cases over a seven-day period per 100,000 population in River Falls and surrounding districts, which allows for an “apples-to-apples comparison.” School administration credits mandatory masking for River Falls’ lower numbers than its neighbors. The most notable increased from Oct. 21 to Nov. 18 occurred in New Richmond and Ellsworth. Graph courtesy of Superintendent Jamie Benson

December 7, 2021