With new School Board Chair Claudia Gonzalez-George at the helm, much of the discussion and reports at the Jan. 10 Northfield School Board meeting took a backseat to the looming topic of managing COVID-19 with the omicron variant surging in the community.

"We are in a three-week surge," said school district Superintendent Matt Hillmann. "Our Cue testing program hit 1,000 tests today."

Hillmann began his COVID-19 update, saying "this is not good news; Omicron has hit here like they predicted."

He went on to explain how it's been a "a bit surreal" to watch the case counts grow as the person who updates the dashboard every morning. From Jan. 2-8, Hillmann said there's been a steep climb in cases: "Not shocking but predicted." He said 135 new cases in last the 13 days with 538 COVID-19 cases during school year.

"On Jan. 10, our current number is 179 cases in the last two weeks," Hillmann reported. The good news is that the school district has more tools than ever to use to combat this, including a large stock of rapid antigen tests. So far, 1800 free tests have been distributed.

He said that, despite the high flu rate, students have experienced after the recent holiday break, many of them have not returned to school yet.

But what is most troubling now is staffing..

"We are struggling with staffing," Hillmann said. "There were 12 ½ unfilled positions today. We are using all the resources we have to ensure uninterrupted, in-person learning. We need to evolve from treating this as a pandemic to an endemic illness."

Hillmann said the district has purchased 3,700 KN-95 masks, which are a better grade to combat a different variant like Omicron. Additional youth masks for kindergarten through fifth grade would be available Tuesday.

The test to stay program started this week. If a student has had close contact with someone who tested positive, that is within 6 feet for 15 minutes, they could receive two Bionex tests and continue to come to school. The student would test again on day five if there are no symptoms. The test results would be shared with the schools from a photo taken on a cell phone.

"This could be clunky to start," he said. "But we need to transition to endemic disease. All of this is rooted in the latest scientific research. With diligence, we are armed to withstand."

Tom Baraniak asked if the wrestling field trip planned for later in January would be impacted by the Omicron surge. Hillmann said athletics are not part of official school protocols.

Asked who is eligible to receive the rapid molecular cue test available for symptomatic individuals associated with district, and Hillmann replied students, staff and children of employees in other districts.

Amy Goerwitz then asked about the morale of the 600 staff members employed by the district.

"Morale might be too general a question to answer," he said. This year, more students than staff have been hit by COVID-19. "Last year, there was a more even split."

He did explain that now younger students are testing positive and that the district is seeing more vaccinated and boosted staff being infected.

"Public service is difficult," Hillmann said. "Most people understand where we are at. We are coming up on two years since March 15 when the governor announced a shut down. This is the hand we’ve been dealt. Therefore, we should not whine and complain. Morale depends on what day of week it is or what time of day."

He continued, "That's not an articulate answer, but it's from my heart. Speaking on behalf of the whole board, we thank the entire staff. Everybody is pitching in. We're proud of how Northfield is responding."

"That's all the business for tonight," Gonzalez-George said, before she gaveled for the meeting to adjourn at 8:25 p.m.

Pamela Thompson is the associate editor for the Northfield News. Reach her at 507-645-1115 or pamela.thompson@apgsomn.com.

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