Pine River-Backus Schools: Possible mask requirement only in highest of 4 COVID 19 mitigation tiers

School reveals mitigation plan among small outbreak at school

The Pine River-Backus School Board met and discussed possible mitigation efforts triggered by a small number of students who tested positive for Coronavirus. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
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Pine River-Backus Superintendent Jonathan Clark summarized the district's COVID 19 mitigation plan for the 2021-2022 semester in response to an outbreak of "fewer than five" children at the school.

Clark said he was being intentionally vague to avoid violating policies regarding privacy of the district's students.

The plan, revealed at the Monday, Sept. 10 meeting, laid out four tiers of mitigation, of which, the highest tier considers possible mask requirements for at least some of the school, though that would be determined by the district's response team.

The tiers are determined by the district's current case numbers as well as those of the county, though the districts numbers are the main focus. So far Cass County has reported in the entire month of September there have been 97 positive cases. The numbers are reported every Monday and Thursday.

Tier 1, where the district is now is reached when there is community spread, but zero to low school spread. This tier requires universal precautions: using seating charts, thorough cleaning protocols, hand washing and "respiratory etiquette" (covering coughs), practicing social distancing where possible and allowing optional masks.


Tier 2 is reached when there is spread in the community and a small level of spread in the school. At this tier face masks are recommended but not required. Also staff and students with positive tests will be quarantined and those in close contact with them will be notified. The school is expecting to have tests they can send home with the staff or students to test themselves. At this level the elementary, middle school and high school are divided and monitored separately.

Tier 3 is reached when there is a moderate school spread, defined as 10 percent of a classroom at the elementary level, or 10 percent of a grade level in the junior high or high school (because those students aren't limited to one classroom with all the same students all day long). This tier includes possible distancing protocols, face mask recommendations, quarantines for those who test positive and notification to those in close contact. At this point, those who test positive or have been in contact and show symptoms will be quarantined until they have a negative test.

Tier 4 will happen when there is greater than 10% in a classroom, grade level or building who test positive. Face masks may be required for some or all students. There may also be consideration of 14 day "resets" which could include the above masking requirement or at home learning for those two weeks. The response will be determined by the district's COVID-19 response team consisting of the principals, school nurse, COVID coordinator, superintendent and directors in consultation with the school board and the teacher's union.

Masks are currently required on school buses by the federal government, but at this time they are optional. The district also makes masks and hand sanitizer available to all who need them. Clark said the district is also applying for a Minnesota grant to receive test kits for students who may be showing symptoms.

The test kits are swabs which are wiped just inside the front of the student's nostril and then smeared on a test strip which will give a positive or negative result almost instantly. The grant will pay for enough test strips for every student. The district has other, non-instant tests for staff, but the grant does not cover staff tests. Students can take the tests home to use them or, with parental permission, the school nurse may apply the tests.

The district also heard from one parent during public comment. She said her child should be in second grade this year, however, he is taking a medication for an autoimmune disorder which makes his immune system more susceptible to infection. In an emotional plea, the parent said that she didn't think mandating masks or vaccines was the answer, but asked that the district take some form of extra steps to make school safe for her son, who desperately wants to be with his classmates.

In other business, the school board:

  • Approved the high school student handbook. The new handbook will continue to ban hats in the school once the first bell rings. It also defines acceptable use of electronics like phones, defining when and how students may listen to music and other media.
  • Approved a preliminary levy of $1,894,602.15. This is an 8.34% increase and the maximum allowed, however, the final levy approved in December will likely be lower, as the PR-B district traditionally levies the maximum in September and then chooses a lower final levy based on the most up to date state funding, enrollment and property valuation information.
  • Approved hiring Leah Freeman as junior high volleyball coach, Mike Shetka as robotics coach, Andrew Rudlang as robotics coach.
  • Approved hiring Ariana Schendel as long term substitute teacher.
  • Approved hiring Gabrielle Schmidt as behavior management specialist.
  • Approved hiring Lisa Spizzo as cook, Tammy Moon as paraprofessional and Tracy Smith as paraprofessional.
  • Accepted the resignation of Kim Hellen, paraprofessional with the district since 1995.
  • Approved Tracy DeGrote and Lloyd Oney as full time route bus drivers.
  • Approved a leave of absence for Alexis Anderson, elementary teacher.
Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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