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SCHOOLS & EDUCATION

American Dreamer STEM Academy in Decatur temporarily closing due to COVID cases

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The number of COVID-19 cases in children in the US reached levels not seen since the winter surge. Veuer’s Maria Mercedes Galuppo has the story.

DECATUR — American Dreamer STEM Academy will be closed until Tuesday, Sept. 7, due to the large number of students identified as close contacts to COVID-19 cases.

Students were sent home at the end of the school day Wednesday, and will learn remotely while the school is closed. They will be expected to sign in daily to Google Classroom or Seesaw, depending on grade level, for live instruction.

The decision impacts 410 students and approximately 40 staff members, school officials said.

Breakfast and lunch packages will be available for pickup at the school, 2115 S. Taylor Road, between noon and 2 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, and Tuesday, Aug. 31.

"We continue to monitor COVID numbers in all of our schools and will keep our community updated," the district said in a news release announcing the decision Wednesday afternoon. "We hear the concerns from our families and will continue monitoring and making decisions to protect the health and safety of all our students and our entire community."

The building will be thoroughly cleaned during the closure, according to the district's COVID-19 protocols. 

Decatur Public Schools opened for full in-person learning Aug. 16 after being fully remote for most of the 2020-21 academic year. The district is asking American Dreamer students and their families to stay home as much as possible during the shutdown to contain the potential spread of the virus.

The Macon County Health Department on Wednesday announced 62 new positive cases and the death of man in his 80s with COVID. To date, the county is reporting a total of 12,411 positive cases and 214 deaths since the pandemic began. There are currently 31 residents hospitalized.

The challenges associated with the return to in-person instruction amid the increasing cases of COVID-19 cases on the local, state and national level, were a topic of discussion at Tuesday's Decatur school board meeting.

Board members heard from the district's counsel, Brian Braun, who said handling contact tracing, students and staff who test positive, and possible quarantines is an ever-changing landscape. 

"I had a conversation (Tuesday) with (district health coordinator) Angie Wetzel about contact tracing, about teachers being quarantined, and I also know that the (state) attorney general has given instructions to state's attorneys which changed this morning," Braun said. 

Some of the protocols will require bargaining with employee unions, he added, and that hasn't even begun yet. Decatur Education Association President Chrissy Petitt has asked for a meeting to consider the effect on teachers, for example, sent into quarantine.

Board member Jason Dion, who raised the question during board discussion, said the district has to consider the effect on employees' finances if they have to stay home for two weeks.

"How do they pay their bills?" he said. 

Federal funds that were available in 2020 to help people who couldn't work due to COVID are no longer available, Braun said, which is why meetings with union representatives and clear guidelines are needed. The problem is still that those guidelines keep changing.

"We don't know where this pandemic is going over the course of the year," Braun said. "We have children back in school, and none of the children (under 12) are vaccinated, and we still have, I presume, a significant number of employees that haven't been vaccinated, and we're going to have to find solutions to problems that we probably haven't even identified yet. We're doing the best we can. We understand the concerns, we hear the teachers and the teaching assistants. We need some time to resolve these problems because they require discussion and investigation."

Interim Superintendent Bobbi Williams said the COVID team is meeting every other day at a minimum trying to keep up with the changing guidelines. 

When contacted Tuesday before the school board meeting, Decatur School District spokeswoman Denise Swarthout said if a student has symptoms, the principal or school nurse informs central administration via a phone tree, the student's family, and the Macon County Health Department.

The health department determines who might be a "close contact" and whether the student or staff member has been vaccinated. The person who is positive for COVID-19 and their close contacts will be quarantined, but the length of that quarantine is determined by the health department, Swarthout said. 

The entire family will be quarantined, so if a student tests positive and has siblings, even if those siblings attend other buildings, they will have to be quarantined, too. Once the person is released from quarantine, he or she can return to school. 

"If your kid is sick, keep them at home," Swarthout said. "It's so hard to know if it's a cold, or allergies, or COVID. Protecting the health and safety of our school and community is the most important thing." 

The Macon County Health Department notifies people who are close contacts of someone who tested positive as quickly as possible, but if you suspect you have been exposed, you should isolate even if you haven't been contacted. Sometimes there are so many cases that contact tracers don't get to them right away. 

"At this time, our case investigators and contact tracers are working very hard to reach out to individuals who have COVID-19 or have been named as a close contact to an individual who has COVID-19," said Krystle Temple, a health educator with the Macon County Health Department. "We call cases and contacts as soon as we receive that information. Please note that it may take a couple of days for positive cases to enter our system. Because of this, we encourage individuals to start isolating as soon as possible and contact anyone who they have been in close contact with. If there are days with a higher volume of cases that our local team cannot reach within 24 hours, those cases and contacts go to staff at the state’s SURGE center and are contacted through that center."

Temple said, "Local school districts have been working with our team to provide seating charts and possible close contacts of staff and students. This includes lists of individuals from bus rides, classroom settings, and more. We appreciate the public’s patience and urge everyone to answer the call to work with case investigators and contact tracers as needed."


Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter

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