The Journal Gazette
Friday, November 13, 2020 1:00 am

Officials assure schools are safe

Cite off-campus cases; NACS grades 6-12 going remote

ASHLEY SLOBODA and DAVE GONG | For The Journal Gazette

Despite rising coronavirus case numbers – including 400 new cases Thursday in Allen County – the risk of catching the virus at schools remains low, local health officials said.

“We are not currently seeing a lot of transmission within schools,” said Megan Hubartt, Allen County Department of Health spokeswoman.

“In fact, schools seem to be one of the safest places for kids to be right now because the districts have done such a great job working to ensure preventative measures like masking and physical distancing are being consistently followed in their facilities,” she said in an email.

Local health officials are seeing transmission in some sports settings, however, Hubartt added.

And some schools continue to make adjustments due to the coronavirus.

Northwest Allen County Schools announced Thursday its middle and high schools will shift to remote learning today after it experienced a significant increase in cases this week requiring an “inordinate number of students in quarantine,” Superintendent Chris Himsel said in a statement. Staff members also were affected, he added.

The district intends to return to on-site activities Nov. 30.

Himsel attributed the exposures to activities happening on weekends and during school holidays, with the recent trend starting about a week after fall break and amplified about a week after Halloween.

Social gatherings are also responsible for school-aged children getting sick, Hubartt said.

“Much of the transmission occurring in the community is also happening during social activities outside of school like parties, sleepovers and family or other social gatherings,” she said. “And sometimes those cases do come into the school, which requires additional contacts be quarantined as a result.”

Since public schoolchildren began returning to Allen County classrooms Aug. 10, the number of local COVID-19 cases has risen from 3,964 to 12,813 as of Thursday.

That total of nearly 13,000 includes 400 new cases the Allen County Department of Health announced Thursday.

An additional 11 residents have died from COVID-19 for a total 261 deaths, the department said in a news release. 

DeKalb County reported one death and 73 new positive cases Thursday. That brings the county's total positive cases to 1,273, with 23 deaths.

At least 349 school coronavirus cases – including 219 among students – have affected Allen County schools, both public and private, according to the state's school virus dashboard.

The exact local figures are unknown because the dashboard doesn't provide specifics when counts are between one and five – a range many Allen County schools are reporting. Some schools, mostly private, aren't reporting data.

The dashboard was last updated Monday and reflects cases as of Nov. 6.

Combined, the NACS secondary schools have at least 42 student cases: 30 at Carroll High School, 11 at Maple Creek Middle School and fewer than five at Carroll Middle School, the dashboard shows.

NACS officials hope this disruption to on-site learning at Carroll High School and Carroll and Maple Creek middle schools is temporary, Himsel said.

“However, in order to successfully keep our schools open, we need the support of our entire community,” he added.

Himsel encouraged the public to practice the guidelines public health experts have recommended throughout the pandemic – including staying home and isolating from others when sick, wearing a mask, maintaining a social distance of at least 6 feet, washing hands frequently and avoiding large social gatherings.

State and local officials are closely watching hospital capacity.

Dr. Jeffrey Boord, Parkview Health's chief quality and safety officer, said the health care provider is adapting capacity “to meet demand as the situation evolves.”

So far, the Parkview system has adequate capacity to care for patients with coronavirus and other conditions, he said.

“While we have plans in place for multiple scenarios, we've learned that no one can predict with certainty how the pandemic will unfold,” he said in a statement. “Our team is focused on adapting to the present situation and remaining flexible.

“Our incident command center monitors critical factors around the clock, and leaders meet multiple times a day to adjust operations as needed.”

Recent expansions have increased capacity at Parkview Regional Medical Center and Parkview Hospital Randallia, Boord added.

“At this time, staffing is our most critical capacity resource,” he said. “We're seeing more co-workers being unable to work due to COVID-19, and the vast majority of those cases are coming from community exposure, meaning they're being exposed outside of the workplace.

“The community can help us minimize the spread. Wear a mask, wash your hands, avoid social gatherings and stay home if you are sick – these practices will make a difference and help alleviate the pressure on all health care workers.”

Quarantines have affected school staffing levels, leading to some temporary shifts this week to remote learning.

For instance, Southwest Allen County Schools had 23 classrooms without adequate staffing on Monday, 16 of which were at the secondary level, Superintendent Phil Downs said in a statement. Two weeks of virtual learning for the district's high school and two middle schools began Wednesday.

Fort Wayne Community Schools has experienced similar staffing shortages. Some classrooms have had to switch to remote formats, but entire schools haven't needed to close, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said.

In a Thursday letter to parents, Warsaw Community Schools Superintendent David Hoffert warned that increases in cases are impacting area schools. 

“Increasing staff absences due to COVID in these areas could cause necessary modifications to the school schedule,” Hoffert wrote. “These modifications may include temporarily moving to eLearning days to offer a rest period until we gain back the critical level of staff necessary to maintain services.” 

The district did not announce any imminent changes, but Hoffert asked parents to remain vigilant and help keep the schools open. 

The first months of the academic year demonstrated on-site learning is possible with cooperation from students and staff, Himsel said.

“I have confidence that we can continue offering on-site learning experiences if we are also diligent in implementing COVID mitigation strategies away from school,” he said.

Gov. Eric Holcomb's decision this week to once again implement restrictions on gatherings has also meant changes for Fort Wayne's Embassy Theatre, which will present “On Broadway” on Sunday.

Allen County, under the reinstated restrictions, is limited to 50 people at public events.

The restrictions mean the Embassy is now at capacity for the event and is now only selling virtual tickets.

It's unclear how the order will affect the Embassy's annual Festival of Trees, said Carly Myers, chief marketing officer. The Embassy is working with the Allen County Department of Health to work that out. 

“I am asking for patience as we determine what adjustments need to be made and will communicate changes as quickly as those are finalized,” Myers said.

Sherry Slater of The Journal Gazette contributed to this report.

Area COVID-19 cases

Includes total cases, new cases in parentheses.

Adams: 1,118 (76)

Allen: 12,813 (400)

DeKalb: 1,273 (73)

Huntington: 794 (36)

LaGrange: 1,131 (46)

Noble: 1,827 (65)

Steuben: 1,008 (36)

Wells: 815 (37)

Whitley: 884 (34)

Sources: Indiana State Department of Health, Allen County Department of Health, DeKalb County Health Department

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