WATERLOO — Concerns over COVID-19 related absences are rising among Cedar Valley schools as positive cases of the virus continue to grow across the region.
Both the Waterloo and Cedar Falls boards of education had lengthy discussions this week about what their districts are facing in terms of positive cases and the need for students and staff to quarantine. Neither district has requested a state waiver from in-person education, which would allow for temporarily moving to all online learning.
Black Hawk County has surpassed the threshold for a COVID-19 positivity rate at which districts can request a waiver. A student absentee rate of 10% is another factor that can be considered by the state in granting waivers.
Andy Pattee, superintendent of Cedar Falls Community Schools, said the confidence he had expressed to board members at their prior meeting two weeks earlier about maintaining face-to-face learning was “somewhat wavering because of the community positivity rate.”
While Waterloo Community Schools’ Superintendent Jane Lindaman acknowledged that “we are seeing rising rates,” she noted the growth in coronavirus cases among students and staff doesn’t parallel Black Hawk County’s increase.
Other school districts in and around the county are similarly seeing growth in positive cases of COVID-19 and the need for others to quarantine.
Superintendent Ed Klamfoth said that last week Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools had 15 new positive cases among students and staff. There are nearly 2,700 students and employees in the district. The student absentee rate stood at 2.7% as of Friday.
“The absentee rate for this week has crept up some, with it being 3.1% on Monday, 4.9% yesterday, but then down slightly today at 4.6%,” he wrote in an email Wednesday.
Hudson Community Schools has seen a growing number of students and staff testing positive since late October, with seven reported last week through its online COVID-19 dashboard.
“I’ve currently got 10 cases,” Superintendent Tony Voss said earlier this week. “That would be eight students and two employees.” He said Hudson Schools also had 55 students quarantining.
Denver Community Schools reported through its dashboard Friday that 10 staff or students had tested positive for the past week and 47 were in quarantine. Contacted earlier this week, Superintendent Brad Laures said the student absentee rate for COVID-19 related reasons had been growing and was at 2.5%.
Several other area school districts have lower numbers of positive cases based on the most recent updates to their online dashboards. Jesup and Union community schools both reported having up to five cases as of Friday. As of Wednesday, Dike-New Hartford Community Schools reported five positive tests for people who hadn’t yet returned to school – including three added this week.
All three districts had far higher numbers of people quarantining. Jesup had 104 people, 44 of whom had an exposure at one of the district’s rural Amish schools. Union had 65 people in quarantine as of Friday and Dike-New Hartford had 91 as of Wednesday.
Waterloo Schools has never publicly released the number of positive COVID-19 cases among its employees and students or the number absent for reasons related to the disease.
However, as of Wednesday, a spokeswoman said the district had a 5.6% absence rate from in-person classes for students who tested positive or had possible exposure to someone who did. Students testing positive totaled 0.4% of the nearly 8,000 who are currently attending classes in schools. The district has an enrollment of 10,195 students this fall.
Those percentages indicate roughly 440 students are absent and 30 are current positive cases. Officials didn’t provide specific numbers to The Courier.
“A few weeks ago, we had zero students who were positive in a whole week,” said Lindaman. “That isn’t true now.”
Cedar Falls Schools has had a similar policy about releasing COVID-19 data, but officials have at two points in the past said the district had less than five positive cases among students and staff. Pattee offered an update this week as that number grew, though the district didn’t respond to a request for specific numbers.
“We now have two buildings that are over five,” he said. Those include the high school and Southdale Elementary School. Pattee emphasized that positive tests vary widely by building, noting some district schools “haven’t had a case yet.”
The rate of people testing positive for COVID-19 in Cedar Falls Schools doesn’t match the county, either.
“However, we are seeing higher rates of quarantines, necessary isolations,” said Pattee. “Necessary because we are seeing that community positivity rate, that spread, when students go home or staff go home.
“They’re out in the community, they’re around somebody that has tested positive,” he said. “Then they’re required to quarantine and that’s a significant concern for us, as well, as we look at the overall contagion rate.”
He didn’t discuss an absentee rate, but early last week the district announced it was at 6.4%. With 5,594 students in the district, that amounts to just under 360 absences.
Pattee noted Cedar Falls Schools has good control of person-to-person spread. “We’re not seeing that in our buildings,” he said.
Voss in Hudson and Laures in Denver said they don’t believe the virus is being spread in their schools, either.
“There is strong evidence that the masks are working for us,” added Lindaman, of Waterloo Schools. “We are seeing when the masks are worn by staff and students in our buildings there is not much evidence of transference.”
Still, there are situations where more stringent measures have been used in the district. Last week, she said, parents at one school were told that “we’re going to another level of precautions, and we’re doing that as we need to” across Waterloo Schools.
All of the superintendents contacted for this story said they have concerns about staff who need to quarantine because they’ve tested positive or are waiting for results related to a possible exposure. They said it is possible that factor more than any other could force them to seek a state waiver for a change from in-person education.
“We had 57 staff members out today across the district, for a variety of reasons (several of which are not COVID-related),” Waverly-Shell Rock’s Klamfoth said Wednesday. “Of those 57, we were able to find subs for just 17 of them.”
“It doesn’t take many of those in key positions before you’re in trouble,” said Voss, who noted the situation in Hudson Schools has been deteriorating this week. “We really are taking this day-by-day. My intent is to give families as much lead time as possible.”
Lindaman said COVID-19 related staffing issues have pushed administrators to new levels of creativity.
“We have a couple of buildings that we’ve had to pull some tricks out of our bag to make sure that every room was covered,” she said. Some of that involves “unique and innovative” uses of substitutes.
Pattee said an interim move Cedar Falls Schools could consider besides a waiver if it has too many difficulties filling absent teacher slots is a hybrid educational model. In the meantime, he said there is “not a definitive next step” if something is needed short of ramping up precautions district-wide, but moving a grade level to hybrid or all online would be possibilities.
Freedom Rocks in Northeast Iowa
INDEPENDENCE – In honor of Veterans Day, more than 100 spectators and veterans gathered at Buchanan County’s newest patriotic symbol.
The Buchanan County Freedom Rock, a 34-ton field stone adorned with historic and patriotic depictions of local military service members, was dedicated Wednesday at an outdoor ceremony at Heartland Acres Agribition Center and Museum.
“It has been very special to watch the way the people of Independence and our county have come together to support this cause. In a year where a lot of things have been put on hold or plans have changed, this certainly has been a highlight,” said Jon Blin, chairman of the center.
A color guard formation of local veterans surrounded the boulder and performed a rendition of “Taps.” Buchanan County Supervisor Clayton Ohrt, state Sen. Craig Johnson and Leanne Harrison of the Buchanan County Historical Society spoke to the crowd.
“This rock represents our freedoms and sacrifices made by our veterans,” said Johnson, who was executive director of the agribition center.
The rock is a part of the Iowa Freedom Rock Tour, an idea created by Iowa artist Ray “Bubba” Sorensen II. The tour will soon include one Freedom Rock in each Iowa county with a special 100th stone for the state. Sorensen finished painting the rock in August.
The Veterans Day program also was an opportunity to thank and recognize the individuals, businesses, community organizations and committee members that helped raise funds needed to create the Freedom Rock site and commission the painting.
“They really did an awesome job,” said Tim Close of Independence, who served in the Marines Corps from 1985-89 and was stationed in Korea.
The Buchanan County Freedom Rock was found three miles southwest of the ag center and was originally part of a much larger rock that broke off during the melt of the glaciers more than 14,000 years ago. Crews with Larson Construction Co., which also built the agribition center, helped relocate the rock to its new home in January.
“Buchanan County has always been good at being patriotic and realizing what the veterans did for this country and the communities,” said Ohrt, who served in Vietnam while in the U.S. Navy from 1968-70.
Jim Lawler of Independence attended the ceremony in his U.S. Navy dress uniform after speaking with other local veterans at St. John’s Elementary School in Independence. The veterans also spoke on camera for a virtual Veterans Day ceremony at Independence High School.
A 2nd class gunner’s mate, Lawler joined the military after high school from 1966-72 and spent two years in Vietnam.
“I still serve my community by volunteering here. That’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Lawler is one of many veterans in his family. His father and two uncles served in World War II. One uncle was killed in a B-26 bomber by an enemy fighter.
Lawler was deployed to Vietnam from 1968-69 at the same time as his older brother. A younger brother served in Vietnam in the Army artillery in 1971, and his youngest brother served in Vietnam from 1972-73 on a destroyer. Lawler also has nephews who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I learned a lot and grew up fast. I was 19 years old, and I was in charge of 13 men and a gun. It was an honor to serve,” he said.
One side of the Buchanan County Freedom Rock features Admiral Harry Ervin Yarnell, who was born in Independence in 1875 and had a 51-year military career spanning three wars. To honor Yarnell’s service, the Navy commissioned a Leahy-class guided missile frigate in his name, the USS Harry E. Yarnell (CG-17), that served from 1963-93.
Another scene depicts Captain Daniel S. Lee, leader of the “Independence Guards” in the Civil War who later served as the first mayor of Independence and a representative in the Iowa Legislature.
The third side shows the 1944 CASE SI Tractor with Hough loader – Army Airborne, which is on display with other military artifacts at the Heartland Acres Machine Shed. This style of tractor was used in the military to maintain and repair aircraft runways, perform construction jobs in battle zones, fill bomb craters and haul mobile weapons among other duties.
The project was funded by local businesses and residents and made possible by Heartland Acres, Independence Area Chamber of Commerce, Buchanan County Tourism, VFW Post 2440 and the American Legion Post No. 30.
CEDAR FALLS – Upon further review, attendance at this weekend’s state high school football playoffs will be limited to 2,400 fans per game — 15% of the UNI-Dome’s capacity.
Tickets already purchased are still good for their assigned games. UNI is sending ticket links to participating schools to ensure players’ close family members will be able to purchase tickets if they have not already done so. Walk-up tickets will no longer be available for any of the semifinals or finals.
This latest change was made in response to rising COVID-19 case numbers in Black Hawk County.
The current plan was put in place following a Wednesday meeting arranged by University of Northern Iowa President Mark Nook. Representatives from the Iowa Department of Education and Governor’s Office joined Black Hawk County health and UNI officials in the discussions.
“We’re taking these additional steps today to further protect our campus and community,” Nook said, in a statement released by the school Wednesday night. “As the longstanding host site for the state football championships, we also recognize our responsibility for the health and safety of our campus and the general public.”
UNI suspended ticket sales Wednesday while working on the plan. UNItix online sales were reactivated Wednesday night.
On Tuesday, the IHSAA had announced it would be sticking with its original plan to seat pods of up to six fans in a diamond social distancing pattern capable of accommodating nearly 7,000 per game.
According to Nafissa Cisse Egbuonye, Black Hawk County Health Department director, that plan was put in place before cases of COVID-19 spiked locally and statewide, pushing hospitals to the breaking point.
“Our responsibility is to help any business sector in terms of mitigating the spread of COVID,” Egbuonye said Tuesday. “We review plans. We review seating charts. We give feedback and recommendations.
“When this plan was put into place it was way before our numbers started. If that’s something we need to re-evaluate, we can definitely do that. If that’s something that they’re open to then, yes, we can definitely look at that.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Nook reached out to Egbuonye before Wednesday’s larger meeting.
“We’re happy to partner with UNI and appreciate the steps they’re taking in response to rising coronavirus case numbers here and across the state,” Egbuonye said in Wednesday’s statement. “We urge everyone traveling here for the playoffs to wear masks and remain socially distanced.”
Black Hawk County’s 14-day positive testing rate sits at 25.7% with an average of 162 new daily cases over that stretch. Iowa’s seven-day COVID-19 average of daily new cases is 4,351. Two weeks ago, that daily average was under 1,000.
The city of Cedar Falls previously sent a letter to qualifying schools, reminding all participants and families of precautions in place to ensure a safe visit – that includes a mask mandate when social distancing is not possible. Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation Tuesday that limits those visiting restaurants to groups of eight or smaller.
Beyond the thousands of visitors Cedar Falls anticipates this weekend, Eguonye pointed out Tuesday that she was alarmed by the virus spread within the community.
“I’m very concerned,” Egbuonye said. “I’m concerned about even when people are not coming into Black Hawk County with the level of community spread that we are seeing.
“My hope is that, whether it’s visitors or residents, that people do the right thing by masking, socially distancing, frequently washing their hands and also prioritizing. This is really the time to spend time with immediate family. Attending and encountering more people, you’re also at risk.”
Egbuonye says now is not the time for people to relax.
“We’re seeing where people have COVID fatigue, and this is not the time for people to be tired of COVID,” Egbuonye said. “This is a time to be vigilant because we want to make sure we protect as many lives as possible and ensure that our community stays healthy.”
DES MOINES — The pleas from Iowa hospital and public health officials are clear:
Everyone must do their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 — which is spreading through the state like wildfire — or hospitals will soon be overrun by patients and health care workers will be overwhelmed.
“It is starting to get dire,” said Dr. Matthew Sojka, chief medical officer for Mercy- One-Northeast Iowa in Waterloo.
The advice remains the same: Avoid gatherings. Stay home whenever possible. Wear a mask. Wash your hands frequently. Don’t touch your face.
COVID-19 is tearing through Iowa at rates never before seen during the pandemic, which first hit here in late March. The two-week average for new deaths is at its highest point, and the two-week average of new cases has tripled in two months.
Experts say the latest surge is being driven primarily by individuals interacting with each other, including gatherings of family and friends, and by people gathering in public places like bars and restaurants without practicing social distancing.
The unprecedented spike is hitting hospitals hard. The two-week average of COVID-19 hospitalizations is double the previous high in mid-May. And the two-week average of COVID-19 hospital admissions is more than triple its previous high.
On Wednesday, the Iowa Department of Public Health confirmed 4,764 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours and 26 additional deaths for a statewide death toll of 1,898. The DPH said hospitals admitted 230 new COVID-19 patients in the past 24 hours compared with 166 Tuesday. That blew past the previous high mark of 181; the state had not seen as many as 100 new admissions in a 24-hour span until just more than two weeks ago.
Iowa DPH reported 1,190 hospitalizations, of which 210 patients are in intensive care. On Tuesday the state reported 4,425 new cases and 27 new deaths, with 1,135 patients hospitalized.
The number and percentage of available hospital beds statewide has been shrinking. Some hospitals have hit their capacity for COVID-19 patients, and others are warning even if they still have beds available, they may not have enough healthy workers to cover those beds.
“My people, these health care workers throughout our state, they’re exceptional. And at this point they’re exhausted. They’re exhausted mentally. They’re exhausted physically. They’ve been battling this disease for eight grueling months,” Dr. David Williams, chief financial officer for UnityPoint Health, said late last week during a news conference with Gov. Kim Reynolds at the Capitol. “And now’s the time, I ask for Iowa, this is the time as a state, as a community, you have to take care of my (health care) family. We’ve been spending eight months taking care of you, taking care of your family, taking care of your friends. My plea is that everybody watching today: take care of my family. It’s time to take care of the health care workers.”
On Tuesday, Gov. Kim Reynolds implemented new emergency restrictions on social, community, leisure and recreational events.
At gatherings of 10 people or more, there must be 6 feet of social distancing between groups. Groups are limited to eight people, unless members are from the same family.
If an indoor event exceeds 25 people — or an outdoor event exceeds 100 people — all over age 2 must wear a mask.
Groups in bars or restaurants are similarly limited to eight people (except for family members, which can be more) and all patrons must be seated at tables at all times except for restroom use or other limited reasons.
The proclamation also restricts attendance at youth athletic events to two spectators per student-athlete. She also called on Iowans to postpone family gatherings and vacations as the state heads into the Thanksgiving holiday season .
The proclamation will be in effect for 30 days. Reynolds did not impose a statewide mask mandate.
Hospitals across the state are seeing record numbers of COVID-19 patients.
In Waterloo, officials at UnityPoint Health-Allen Hospital reported that facility is at capacity, and MercyOne reported it was near capacity.
In the Quad-Cities, COVID-19 patients at UnityPoint Health-Trinity have doubled from 25 to 48, including 19 in intensive care, according to president and CEO Robert Erickson. Of those who have been hospitalized in the Trinity system, the death rate has been roughly 10%, Erickson said.
Genesis Health in the Quad-Cities had 105 COVID-19 patients Tuesday, and is planning for that number to increase to 150 or more, a spokesman said.
On October 22, the Metro Area Health Care Coalition — a group of health systems in the Council Bluffs and Omaha area — reported 176 total COVID-19 patients, with 64 in intensive care. On Sunday, the most recent figure available, COVID-19 hospitalizations had more than doubled to 365, with 107 patients in intensive care.
MercyOne North Iowa in Mason City experienced a new record number of COVID-19 patients over the weekend, according to the hospital’s data.
Because the current spike is being driven by individuals — not workplace or long-term care facility outbreaks like previous spikes — officials all Iowans must help control COVID-19’s spread in order to avoid overwhelming the state’s health care system.
“We are a critical point in our state’s fight against COVID-19. It’s going to take every Iowan doing their part to get this virus under control,” Dr. Hijinio Carrion, chief medical officer for MercyOne Central Iowa, said during the news conference with Gov. Reynolds. “I’m asking you as an emergency physician, as a father, and as a husband: Please protect your families, our community, and our health care workers.”
Reporters who contributed to this story include Amie Rivers of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Tom Loewy of the Quad-City Times, Dolly Butz of the Sioux City Journal, Jared McNett of the Mason City Globe Gazette, and Michael Brownlee of the Council Bluffs Daily Nonpareil.