HHS new entrance

Hutchinson Public Schools students in sixth through 12th grade moved back to hybrid learning Monday.

According to a notification sent out to parents last week, the switch was made because "The district is experiencing an increase in COVID-19 cases in grades 6-12 and county case rates continue to go up."

As many have noted case rates are climbing in McLeod County once again. Previously, toward the end of 2020, the number of cases seemed to grow at a swifter rate each week, only to taper off around the start of the new year. Now case rates appear to be on the rise again, leading members of the Hutchinson School Board and McLeod County Board to ask if that increase is especially prevalent in youth.

"We are definitely seeing numbers increase in school-age kids," said McLeod County Health and Human Services Director Berit Spors.

The rise is in keeping with an overall trend for the county. The most recent 14-day case rate, which is announced each Thursday, shows 43.82 cases per 10,000 McLeod County residents. The two-week data reflects information from two weeks prior but shows a steady trend upwards. Six weeks prior, the rate was 9.49. That rate doubled over the next few weeks then climbed to the most recent tally. 

"We expect it to be even higher (April 22)," Spors said.

In McLeod County, Park Elementary in Hutchinson and Holy Trinity in Winsted are on a state list of school buildings with five or more reported cases in a two-week period. The state has also tracked total cases in each county since the pandemic began. On Monday McLeod County's total confirmed cases had reached 3,886, up from 3,761 the previous Monday.

Spors couldn't pinpoint exactly why rates had climbed. Holiday gatherings could have played a role, as could attendance to sporting events. But after so long, it's possible residents have grown fatigued with social distancing guidelines, hand washing and masks. Public Health continues to encourage residents to stay the course.

As noted at a recent Hutchinson Public Schools meeting, educators are balancing more than just the number of students confirmed to have COVID-19.

"We react right away," said Michael Scott, director of teaching and learning. 

Teachers, families and administrators keep each other up to date regarding reported cases, and spend time as needed on the weekend and in the evenings with contact tracing. As a result, it's not just diagnosed students in quarantine, but others who may have been in contact as well. Those students use digital learning and may not attend activities.

Vaccine clinics conducted by the county have also helped safeguard educators, among other priority groups.

"Any of our staff members who wanted a vaccination were able to get one," Hutchinson Public Schools Superintendent Daron VanderHeiden told the School Board. "We did have a number of staff people that decided not to do that, which was their decision. But we've also given them the opportunity, if they would like one in the future, they can still do that. We feel pretty good about the percent (who have a vaccine)."

Educators as well as government officials from cities and counties have spoken often this past year of how quickly circumstances change, not only in data related to COVID-19 spread, but in guidance from the state. New Discoveries Montessori Academy Executive Director Dave Conrad said that has been the case at the public charter school as well.

"Fortunately, we have the luxury of tuning in to the reality of what's happening within our walls," he said. "Until now, since COVID began, there have been pretty prescriptive guidelines ... we would have to follow."

Currently, he said, the school is in a good place. 

"Our families have been remarkable keeping students home if they have a fever or any symptoms, pursuing testing if there are any concerns at all," Conrad said. "I'm 100% grateful."

As a result, he said, the school will be able to continue in-person learning for now. 

"Our radar is always fine-tuned, though," he said. "Tomorrow could bring something different."

New Century Academy will continue in-person learning as well unless mandated otherwise, said Director Jason Becker. He said a detailed look at COVID case rates for the school's population (sixth to 12th grade) in cities and counties where its students live have consistently been low, even when the overall case rate has climbed.