The effects of COVID-19 have taken a toll at Litchfield schools during the past several weeks, with an average of 50 absences a day related to the virus.

Not all of those absences are actual cases of COVID-19, school nurse Lorie Garland emphasized, with some related to students with close contact to someone who did have the virus, students waiting for a COVID-19 test result, or in a household that has a family member with the virus.

Garland presented the medical picture at Litchfield Public Schools during the Oct. 12 Litchfield School Board meeting, appearing before the board at the invitation of Chairman Darrin Anderson.

Since teachers gathered for workshops in late August before the school year began, Garland said, the district has had 86 positive cases of COVID-19, including 19 staff members and 67 students. The student breakdown includes 21 at Lake Ripley Elementary, 24 at middle school, 21 at the high school and one at the Wagner Education Building.

And as the calendar moves into the normal cold and flu season, the health outlook gets a little murkier.

“We are facing a lot of challenges, because not only do we have challenges with COVID, there are a lot of other respiratory conditions in the community,” Garland said in a telephone interview Friday. “The part that’s really tricky is that COVID-like symptoms can look like cold, allergy, respiratory virus kind of symptoms.”

The COVID-19 transmission rate in Meeker County continues to be in the so-called “red zone”, with a positivity rate of 17.8%, according to Meeker Memorial Hospital. As of Oct. 12, Meeker County had reported 3,464 cases since the pandemic began, and during the two-week reporting period of Sept. 27 to Oct. 11, there had been 272 new cases, according to Minnesota Department of Health.

Meanwhile, the county’s vaccination rate remains low, with 49.4% — or 9,235 — of the 18,154 eligible residents fully vaccinated. The statewide vaccination rate is 69.9% for the eligible 16-and-over population.

Among Litchfield School District staff, the vaccination rate of 67.1% (139 of 207) is better than the overall rate in Meeker County, but still lags behind the state average.

In August, Litchfield School Board voted to recommend — but not require — masks for students or staff in the district.

Garland said that Meeker County Public Health officials shared with her that an epidemiologist with MDH reported that cases in schools are climbing quickly and “we are in a much worse position than last year.” A Centers for Disease Control report also stated that if a school does not have a mask policy, they are at 3.5 times greater risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.

The recommendation from MDH is that schools implement a temporary mask policy to help slow the spread of the virus, she added.

Garland also reported that the school district has a supply of saliva tests that can be sent home with students or staff who are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. The test kits are Zoom-enabled and can be done at with, with the sample returned to school in a biohazard bag, then sent to MDH for processing. The district also expects to receive a shipment of rapid antigen COVID-19 tests that can be sent home with students for home testing.

She encouraged students and parents to continue to be diligent about their health, staying home if they’re sick.

“We just want to keep everyone as safe and healthy as possible,” Garland said. “When kids aren’t feeling well, the best place for them to be is at home. We want to have everybody here and in person, and that just means that everybody needs to do their part.”