It’s an open secret among West Fargo teachers: The case numbers of COVID-19 in the West Fargo School District are inaccurate. One main reason for the inaccuracy is the reporting method.

Students are only counted as having COVID-19 when the North Dakota Department of Health notifies the district, according to Heather Leas, West Fargo Director of Health, Safety and Public Relations. Leas said that means the Health Department must receive a positive test result and interview the person and/or the family who is positive.

Teachers say this is a change from the last school year in West Fargo, when parents would report that their children have COVID-19, and those students would be marked as having the virus.

So, what’s happening is that many parents are calling the schools and telling the secretaries their children have COVID-19, but those children are marked as excused, rather than as quarantined with the coronavirus. The secretaries record what the parents said, and teachers can read it in their in-house communications, but unless there’s an official notification from the North Dakota Department of Health, the students are not counted as having COVID-19.

“I’ve never seen so many excused absences for students out so long. It doesn’t make any sense. Kids are slipping under the radar,” said one West Fargo teacher. “So, I went to my school secretary, and she told me all these absences are COVID related, even though they are marked as excused.”

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Educators interviewed for this story asked to not be named out of concern for their employment.

“Our secretaries and counselors have told me about several of my students who have been listed as excused but actually have COVID,” another teacher said. “There was one student of mine who I didn’t see for three weeks, but was listed as excused, rather than with a Q for quarantined. It’s ridiculous.”

“I’m 100% convinced the reported COVID numbers are wrong,” said a third West Fargo teacher. “The numbers are higher than are being reported. The numbers don’t jive with what we’re seeing in the classrooms.”

“I think the district is trying to keep the numbers as low as possible,” the first teacher said. “They want their data to support their policy of not requiring masks.”

Based on an email sent to West Fargo parents and staff, the district appears to acknowledge that COVID-19 is more widespread in the school district, and the numbers are off.

The email says, “The ND Department of Health has indicated a substantial increase in the number of families that refuse to take or return their phone calls after someone in the household tests positive. If the NDDoH cannot get in touch with the family, they cannot provide the district with information on the positive case that we need to determine who receives an exposure notice. PLEASE, if you or someone in your household has tested positive for COVID, answer the phone when NDDoH calls.”

Another reason for the inaccurate numbers is that many students with COVID-19 are coming to school. In a school district where the vast majority of students are not wearing masks, this dramatically increases the chances of spreading the virus to other students and teachers.

Teachers say the most well known incident involved the Sheyenne High School cheerleading team, where as many as three cheerleaders came to school without wearing masks, had COVID-19, cheered at a football game and were quarantined the following week.

“It makes me irate,” said another West Fargo teacher. “Someone should have known to stop them from cheerleading.”

Most cases of students coming to school while they have COVID-19 are not officially counted.

“I’m pretty positive that I’ve had seven students in class with COVID,” the teacher said. “They don’t want to believe it. They don’t want to be quarantined. Parents just want their kids to go to school.”

“Some kids are sitting in class, and they are miserable,” the first teacher said. “I had more than one student tell me to my face, ‘My dad says we’re never going to get a test, because then we have to quarantine.’”

“I have two girls coming to class who are quite sick with COVID symptoms, and not wearing masks,” a fifth West Fargo teacher said. “They told me their parents don’t want to have them tested because they would have to miss work. I’ve sent kids to the nurse and they send them right back. Now, I am not feeling well and getting tested for COVID.”

As of Oct. 8, there have been 376 confirmed student cases of COVID-19 in the West Fargo Public Schools district since the school year began, and 74 staff cases.

According to the school district’s website, there were two outbreaks in the district that were so severe that the classes had to be quarantined. Those were in a third grade class at South Elementary School and a kindergarten class at Brooks Harbor Elementary School. In addition, there were at least four more serious outbreaks in other classrooms that forced students and staff members to wear masks.

This comes in a school district that has ignored urgent pleas to require universal masking from Fargo Cass Public Health and dozens of North Dakota doctors. Also, many students and bus drivers are not wearing masks in school buses, despite orders from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to do so.

To make matters worse, there’s a critical shortage of substitute teachers in the district. Some administrators have to fill in, while full-time teachers have to sub for each other. That rarely happened before this year, teachers said, adding it has left them no time to prepare for their own classes.

It has all left many teachers frightened, scared to speak out, overly stressed and looking to quit.

“A lot of teachers, such as myself, have had to start on anxiety medications since the start of the school year,” the first teacher said. “It’s sad that my employer doesn’t care about me. There are people in charge who are in over their head. Every teacher I know is looking for something else to do.”

“I don’t feel safe at school,” the second teacher said. “I don’t know if I can do this the whole year. I’ve never felt like this before. It feels hopeless.”

“I love the kids, but our voices don’t matter,” the third teacher said. “I don’t know that I can be in a community that’s going in this direction.”

“I know of several kids who have been hospitalized,” the fourth teacher said. “There needs to be a mask mandate in the schools. West Fargo school leaders are not doing their job.”

“It’s irresponsible not to have a mask mandate. It proves the health of our kids is not the top priority,” the fifth teacher said. “I’m afraid. I can’t do my job as well. I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette. I struggle whether this job is worth it. I am 100% convinced that a student or teacher in West Fargo will die from COVID.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Forum's editorial board nor Forum ownership.