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Ellsworth schools to parents: Keep sick kids home

Board hears start of year recap, increases sub pay

ELLSWORTH – During a recap of the school year’s beginning days, Superintendent Barry Cain stressed that parents must keep ill children home from school to help lessen the spread of COVID and other general illness.

The recap, which took place at the Monday, Sept. 13 school board meeting, began with a summary of COVID cases in the district. School has been in session for eight days, plus three interim session days. In that time, Ellsworth Elementary has had 20 confirmed COVID cases, Ellsworth Middle School has had eight, and Ellsworth High School has had 14. Of those, as of Monday, EES had three active, EMS had four active and EHS had three active. This is out of 1,663 students. Cain said he and school nurse Bridget Nelson suspect students brought COVID to school with them from positive family members.

Cain also said that some students are absent because of positive cases in their households. A positive is that staffing is not facing major shortages this year, which was a concern last year.

However, the district is seeing increased cases at lower grade levels than last year, Cain said.

“We didn’t see that last year,” Cain said. “We don’t know if this is Delta.”

Reasons for the positive uptick in cases could be the optional masking policy in place, Cain said. Not only have COVID cases increased, but a high level of general illnesses is being seen this year, with coughing and hacking abounding.

“We saw very little of that last year,” Cain said. “We did not deal with nearly as much of that last year.”

Cain said people have to remember that as county cases increase, the probability that Ellsworth cases will increase can’t be ignored.

“We are not in a vacuum here and living in a totally separate life from out in the county,” Cain said.

He said the board needs to remember that although social distancing is occurring in classrooms, close contact tracing is not occurring at six feet like last year. Three feet is this year’s distance, and students are not being excluded as close contacts – their families are simply informed that they’re a close contact.

“That is a major difference in the way we’re operating this year,” Cain said. “Administration, health aid staff, teachers, I will tell you, those of who did contact tracing last year, if we were still following six feet we would have a lot, lot more students out of school. We would be overwhelmed.”

To keep things manageable, Cain said parents must keep their kids home when they’re sick. He plans to send a weekly letter to parents via email on Fridays to provide updates.

School board member Julie Lundstrom said her two elementary-age children have been wearing masks to school, and while they’re in the minority, it has gone well. Cain said the district takes it “very seriously” if students are being teased for wearing masks and if it happens, they want to hear about it. He also reported that many staff are again choosing to wear masks, which helps make masking children comfortable.

Board member Gary Kressin said he believes Pierce County Public Health’s report of 121 positive cases last week is creating a “Chicken Little” effect, considering it’s 121 cases out of the county’s entire population, which is more than 42,000 people.

Cain ended by saying that the district will continue with its current plan, but board members need to consider all information.

Public survey

The board voted to move ahead with hiring Morris Leatherman to conduct a telephone survey in late October/ early November of 400 randomly selected ECSD households concerning an operational referendum, proposed for April 2022.

Before a household is substituted for another, the company makes at least 10 tries to contact the initial households during a fiveday period. Interviewers are also instructed to seek convenient appointments with district residents, which cuts the non-contact rate to less than 5 percent on average.

The survey results will be presented to the board in December. In 2017, a 50-question survey (the last time ECSD conducted one) cost $15,000, while 72 questions cost $18,000. The district has used Morris Leatherman four times for public surveys with pleasing results.

“It’s important to bring something to the community that we know the community will support,” Cain said. “It helps the board shape the final referendum question with a final dollar amount.”

School populations

ECSD is down 11 students from last year’s numbers. The official Third Friday count will take place Friday, Sept. 17, which helps determine the amount of state funding districts receive.

This year, ECSD has 1,663 total students, with 533 at EHS (up from 499), 384 at EMS (down from 415) and 716 at EES (down from 726).

School board salaries

The board will move forward with exploring school board salary increases, which the public would vote on at the annual meeting. The board has not seen an increase in pay since 2015. Currently, the board president receives $2,500 annually; other officers receive $2,000; regular board members receive $1,900.

Board President Doug Peterson said board member tend to shy away from reviewing their own salaries, because no one is comfortable giving themselves a raise. However, the district should not fall behind in its board salaries, he said.

“I don’t think anyone gets into this position for the pay,” Peterson said. “But it’s nice to have some compensation for the work and time.

Peterson said he will not run for re-election in 2022, so he feels comfortable advocating for a board salary increase for future board members. Susan Beck’s and Julie Lundstrom’s seats are up for election in April as well.

Substitute teacher pay

The board approved raising daily substitute teacher pay from $120 to $150 in order to make the district more competitive in its ability to recruit and retain subs. At $120, Ellsworth was near the bottom compared to other districts: Spring Valley ($110), Durand ($115), Elmwood ($120), Prescott ($120), Somerset ($120), Saint Croix Central ($124.88), Baldwin-Woodville ($125), Amery ($125), Osceola ($130), New Richmond ($150), Hudson ($150; retired staff, $175), River Falls ($160), Red Wing ($170).

Ellsworth High School Principal Mark Stoesz said the district lost at least six subs because retired staff are concerned about health risks in the schools. Cain said young applicants seeking to secure a full-time position by subbing is uncommon these days.

“That’s where we’re at in education today,” Cain said.

On average, EHS needs three to five subs daily. When they aren’t available, teachers cover classes for each other.

The effective date for the pay change is Sept. 16.

Personnel changes

Hires: Dianne Albarado, district-wide full-time substitute teacher; Kimberly Maier, EMS special education teaching assistant; Theresa Riewestahl, EMS special education teaching assistant; Vienda Sanchez, interpreter.

Transfer: Michelle Prissel, from EES special education teaching assistant .40 FTE to PKC staff/EES special education teaching assistant 1.0 FTE. Extra/ Co- curricular: Brandon Voelker, EHS varsity baseball coach. Voelker is an EHS alumni who was catcher on the baseball team, Cain said.

Other business

•The fourth annual Back to School event provided 95 backpacks and shoes to students in financial need. EHS students who organized and packed backpacks were Kallie Beissel, Quinn Emery, Aidan Johnson, Molly Perkins and Maya Bueso.

•Building principals provided reports on the Sept. 8 ALICE drills in the schools.

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