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An aerial view of Monticello High School’s new addition.

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MONTICELLO — A combination of recent COVID-19 cases and their close contacts have driven up the number of remote learners to around 30 percent this week in the Monticello school district.

Superintendent Vic Zimmerman told the school board at a special meeting this week that the district still plans to keep school buildings open, but that they are at the ready to shift to an all-remote platform if needed.

“We're going to continue to watch our numbers,” said Zimmerman, who was encouraged the district had no new cases on Wednesday. “If we do see an uptick in the next few days, we would consider going to a full remote plan possibly starting next week.”

He said the school district has recorded 13 cases since Oct. 30, resulting in those people plus 222 of their close contacts being asked to quarantine at home for two weeks.

Zimmerman said almost all positive tests have come from outside the school district.

“You probably heard by now that there were a couple of events around the Halloween weekend that have taken out a bunch of adults with COVID positives, and when mom and dad are positive, that makes the kids close contacts,” Zimmerman said.

“So those aren't school close contacts, but those are family close contacts,” he added, noting that it still exempts students from school for two weeks.

“We haven't really seen it spread in school,” Zimmerman said.

He did say administrators are concerned for the load on staff if cases continue to pile up and add more remote learners.

High School Principal Adam Clapp agreed, saying the school can excel at either in-person or online learning, but that it is difficult to be top-notch at both in a hybrid atmosphere.

“We can do one mode of instruction extremely well. We know how to do in-person really well. When we went to remote we did it really, really well. I would say we are good when we do both simultaneously. I would say it's difficult to be great doing both at the same time,” Clapp said.

White Heath Principal Emily Weidner told the board that another challenge is “just the in and out” and trying to track which students are in-person and which are remote on any given day.

A majority of initial contact tracing is being done by school staff at this point, with Zimmerman saying it makes sense because the district has contact information for students, staff and families its fingertips.

He also said the local health department is overwhelmed with contact tracing at this point due to the increase in cases in Piatt and DeWitt counties, which had recorded 124 new cases in the bi-county region between Nov. 6-9, with 78 of those being in Piatt County.

Clapp said tracing starts with consulting a seating chart, then moves on to group work that might have brought a positive case in close contact with others, then goes back two days before symptoms appear or a positive test is known and goes through a similar process.

Zimmerman was asked if there was a case number threshold that would kick the school into all-remote classes. He responded that it comes down to the spread of the virus, the burden caused to parents by going all-remote, and the burden on staff as they have to accommodate both platforms.

“When you think about all three of those variables, we are certainly trying to weight what's in the best interest of all three, and ultimately what is in the best interest of the students,” he said.

Steve Hoffman is editor of Community Media Group's Piatt County Journal-Republican. For more, visit journal-republican.com.

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