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COVID-19 cases on slight upward trend in North Dakota schools

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Active COVID-19 cases in North Dakota hit a low of 561 on the final day of February after trending downward since the beginning of the year. March took a turn in the opposite direction, and infections are continuing to rise a month later, nearly doubling that February figure.

Schools are following a similar trend, with active cases among students passing 100 in late March for the first time since January.

“We do a weekly report, and in the last few weeks we have noticed a slight increase,” shared Mandan Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Jeff Fastnacht, “But that is going from one positive per week in students or staff, to now two or three.”

It’s part of Fastnacht’s job, now, to track the COVID-19 cases that make it into the classrooms.

“We don’t want to see what happened in October/November return, but right now we’re feeling very optimistic,” he added.

“The week of November 22, we were missing 70…76 kids were out that tested positive in the school system. That number has gradually declined,” said Dr. Jason Hornbacher, Superintendent of Bismarck Public Schools.

Dr. Hornbacher says Bismarck Schools are near a low point for COVID-19 cases. That is true if you look at the entire pandemic, but just like is happening across the river in Mandan, cases have been creeping up since the end of March.

Courtesy: ND Dept. of Health K-12 Dashboard

“We might have been up or down when you take positive and close contacts, putting them together, but the numbers are close or maybe a little elevated,” Hornbacher added.

Dr. Hornbacher says there are eight active cases among students right now in Bismarck and five among staff. There are an additional seven staff members who are close contacts and 60 students.

Directives from the North Dakota Department of Health allow students and staff to come into school if they’re identified as close contacts, as long as they were masked at the time of the encounter.

“We do get questions about removing masks and reducing the mask mandate,” Fastnacht said.

He says it’s been strongly considered, but is not possible at this point.

“If we remove masks, and we’ve had cases the last couple of weeks to validate this, that we know we’ll be having a large number of kids who are going to have to stay home quarantined, where, while wearing a mask, they can stay in school,” Fastnacht explained.

“That question is on everybody’s mind,” Hornbacher said.

The Superintendent is hopeful the district will take the mask requirement down to a recommendation by the end of the school year.

“Right now, it’s getting frustrating,” Fastnacht added. “It gets to be long, it’s a long haul this thing.”

He says the priority is getting these students through graduation together, in person.

“If masks let us keep every kid in school until that time until the rules change, I think that’s our best practice,” Fastnacht concluded.

Neither administrator foresees ever moving back to a restricted school setting.

Fastnacht says, overwhelmingly, positive cases in Mandan have come from staff who contracted the virus outside of school. Although, active cases among students are higher than staff currently in Morton County.

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