The start of school is always very exciting; it's the opportunity to set new goals and reconnect with our friends and colleagues. It’s only been a few days, but you can tell that it is going to be an amazing year of learning, growing, and building relationships.
The district’s strategic plan has three broad goals that include not only academics, but the physical, social, and emotional wellbeing of our students and we believe this is equally important for our staff members. Each child and staff member are unique, which is why we feel it is critical to include families and staff in conversations about their wellbeing. Therefore, as the superintendent and board president, it is important for us to hear from our stakeholders while making decisions that will affect their wellbeing. We also want our community to have as much information as possible to make critical decisions.
First, we felt it was important to look back at the 2020-21 school year, which began in the hybrid model. This model allowed us to physically distance six feet in the classroom.
All students and staff were masked, and we implemented a variety of other mitigation strategies including increased handwashing etiquette, improved air handler systems to filter and provide fresh air, contact tracing, extensive cleaning measures, and disinfecting/sanitizing high-touch surfaces. By mid-January 2021, all students were back in school at least four days a week, and at the elementary, five days. Although we were unable to physically distance the second half of the year, we still had great success slowing the spread.
Over the course of the 2020-21 school year, we had 872 students and 302 staff members test positive. That number is high, but here is what was remarkable: we traced the source of the infection back to the school setting only a handful of times. In 99% of our cases, the infection was traced back to a close contact in the home or community.
We cannot say for certain if it was one mitigation strategy or all combined, but our data was clear: we saw extremely limited transmission in our schools. We have begun this school year by recommending that all students and staff who are not vaccinated wear a mask while in the school. Additionally, we are offering onsite rapid testing for all students (with parental permission) and staff. Unlike last year when test availability was low and there was a delay in the receipt of results, we will know instantly and can avoid further spread in the classroom (we’ve already caught three positive cases through our testing program). We're also partnering with Essentia to provide opportunities for vaccination and will continue to try to provide as much support as possible for our families and our staff.
We want our families and staff to consider the information in this letter, review all information available to them, and visit with their healthcare provider to choose what is best for themselves and their student(s)’s overall wellbeing. The CDC, Fargo Cass Public Health, and Essentia Health have encouraged universal masking. Whatever one’s decision on masking, the district will support it, but we expect that all students and staff respect the decisions of their peers. West Fargo Public Schools has amazing educators and support staff to ensure that students and staff will not be bullied or harassed based on their family’s choice regarding any of these decisions. If someone wishes to mask and does not have access to approved face coverings, WFPS can provide students and staff with multiple masks to ensure that they always have a clean, dry, and well-fitting mask available. We also will ensure that adequate mask breaks are provided in a safe manner.
As a district, we must first focus on keeping our doors open and creating an environment that centers on learning. While school boards have the authority to mandate masks, the WFPS board has not exercised that authority to date. We believe if we pull together, we can accomplish this without a mandate from our school board, city commissioners, or health officer.
If we learned anything over the course of last year, it’s that decisions related to pandemic response need to be fluid and responsive. District administration is working on thresholds that may prompt the addition of new mitigation strategies (masking, contact tracing, and temporary distance learning) in particular classrooms, schools, or the district based on case data in our schools and community. We are prepared to adjust our pandemic response, including the implementation of a mask mandate by the School Board or abiding by a county-level mandate, when needed to ensure students and staff are able to safely remain in schools.
Thank you for taking the time to learn a bit more about what you can expect from WFPS this year. It is because of our students, families, staff, and community members that we continue to shatter enrollment projections and be the district of choice in North Dakota.
Best wishes for an amazing 2021-2022 school year.