Dodson School District Preparing to Reopen

DODSON, Mont. (NMB) – The Dodson School District is preparing to reopen for in-person learning after a COVID-19 outbreak forced them to abruptly shut their doors last month.

Superintendent Gary Weitz says they remain on track to reopen on February 8th, and student athletes were able to resume practice on February 1st, as all athletes and coaches cleared quarantine or isolation.

“It’s not because we want to put athletics over academics,” Weitz told New Media Broadcasters in a phone call on Monday afternoon. “It’s just simply that we have basketball teams that are ready to go and we don’t want to impact those other schools that are on our school negatively.”

It is unclear where the first case that caused the outbreak came from, but it is clear that it exploded in size at a high school basketball game on January 15th.

“We had a homecoming week, we had a senior night, we had a homecoming game on the 15th. And the night before, we were in a community playing basketball. Five days before that, we were in Whitewater, Montana. Six days before that, we were in Roy. Was it one of those games? Was it a delivery man that came in during the week that stops at schools up and down the Hi-Line? Was it the fact that (our gym) was 80 percent capacity? There is any number of places it could have originated…We’re not going to point fingers or try to pinpoint an origin…Where it orinated from, the professionals can’t even tell me that right now.”

As a whole, the Dodson School District has about 50 staff members and an enrollment of around 100 students. Weitz says in total, 30 District-Associated COVID-19 cases were confirmed, and another 23 people had to quarantine after being considered close contacts. These numbers only include students and employees of the District, and not the community at-large.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sent in strike teams after the outbreak emerged to conduct mass testing of over 400 people and provide additional assistance, which Weitz says was crucial to slowing down the surge of COVID-19 cases in the community.

“These guys came to our building on our campus, and they were very thorough in testing a large population, diverse population of our community. I think that was absolutely huge in getting things corralled and under control.”

Weitz says that while most of the students that contracted the virus had only minor symptoms and are doing better, some of the adults remain “quite ill.” It is his understanding that one adult had to be hospitalized, but they have since been discharged. The staff shortage has led to remote learning being unavailable to students during the closure.

“That is going to be one of the hurdles moving forward, making sure that we have people well in order for us to start school again. That’s 10 staff members that are out (right now). If we can’t get people well, it’s going to make it very difficult to run school.”

The outbreak developed as the District was in the middle of a plan to provide its staff with the COVID-19 vaccine. Although a few staff that had only had one dose of the Pfizer vaccine ended up contracting COVID-19, none of the staff that had already received the second dose ended up contracting the virus.

Weitz has fielded several calls from people asking the District require negative tests before people re-enter the building, but Weitz says health professionals he has consulted have advised against it. This is backed up by information from the CDC.

“That is because apparently, from what I understand, people that have tested positive and are carrying the antibodies moving forward, they can still test positive for upwards to three months or longer. They become less contagious and the contagious aspect of it becomes more minimal once they’ve met their quarantine requirements, once they’re showing no symptoms, and once fevers have reduced on their own without the assistance of over the counter or prescribed medication. So we’re going to have a little bit of the honor system.”

Students and staff that tested positive for COVID-19 will be contacted prior to the District’s reopening to ensure they are not showing symptoms and have fulfilled quarantine or isolation requirements.

Prior to last month’s outbreak, the District had yet to report a single COVID-19 case. Weitz hopes they will be able to start a new streak as they move through the remainder of the school year.

“We are very thankful for the stimulus money, and we’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars to do all of the mitigation and try to keep risk to a minimum. We’ve purchased the resources we felt have been necessary to move forward during COVID, and people have been very cooperative. And still, with all that effort and all that work, the pipes broke all at once here and we’ve been fighting pretty hard to shut the water off. We think we’ve got it and we’re moving forward again.”

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