The body aches started two days before Veterans Day.
David Steckler, the principal of Red Trail Elementary School in Mandan, N.D., chalked it up to overexerting himself at the gym.
“I did not think anything of it,” he said. “But as I progressed through the week, it was more than just sore joints.”
Steckler started to run a fever. He called in sick and started working from home. A COVID-19 test came back positive.
While his case was mild, his experience both complicated his job in leading Red Trail and gave him a unique perspective on the challenges thousands of principals are facing during the pandemic.
Steckler leads a school of 400 students, where all but nine opted to attend in-person classes five days a week.
When he tested positive, he quarantined away from his family and school for 10 days, though he continued to work.
He informed his two administrative assistants, with whom he worked closely, that he’d tested positive and, based on state guidelines, they had to self-monitor for 14 days.
His middle-school aged daughter also had to quarantine at home.
It’s showing me what I can do differently in a normal year. It’s made me be a little bit more innovative as a leader.
Steckler’s school remained open even as coronavirus cases surged in North Dakota in the fall and the state suffered a per-capita positivity rate among the highest in the country. By the December break, 15 staff members and nine students had tested positive for the coronavirus since the beginning of the school year. The school has 30 teachers and 76 total staff members.
But in small school, those cases—absences because of possible exposure can upend normal operations..
In the beginning of the school year, for example, Steckler closed two classrooms and sent all of those students home for 14 days because of a positive case.
“In a 1st-grade classroom, a teacher does not teach from the front of the classroom; she’s interacting with all of the students,” he said.
At one point last fall, 11 staff members were unable to attend face-to-face classes, and not all were able to continue teaching remotely. Some teachers have been out for as long as 24 days for both isolation and then quarantine.
“Some were very ill,” he said. “We would manage without 11 people for a week, and then we would gradually get one back.”
When teachers were too sick to teach even remotely, he called on the counselor, the instructional coach, or the Title I coordinator to cover classrooms and supervise recess.
“It’s been a challenge,” said Steckler, who recently hired two more paraprofessionals—to bring the total number to 27—who can fill in on a moment’s notice if he gets a call at night from someone who is not feeling well.
“Our staff has been very positive and flexible about helping,” he said.
Contact tracing when there’s a positive case in school
At the end of November, Steckler celebrated having a full staff in the building for the first time several weeks. But with the uncertainty and the fast-moving nature of the pandemic, he knows that can flip at a moment’s notice.
An October change in state guidelines has helped with the staffing shortage. The state now asks those exposed for more than 15 minutes to a positive case to self-monitor. A 14-day quarantine is now only required if an individual has been within six feet of someone who tested positive for more than 15 minutes and neither was wearing a mask.
But contact tracing is still an often-laborious process.
After learning that a staff member is positive, Steckler asks them who they had close contact with, then notifies local health authorities about the positive case and the close contacts.
He calls the close contacts—or parents of students—about the exposure and the need to quarantine for 14 days.
He enters all of that information in a spreadsheet.
“We keep track of who is positive, who is self-monitoring, and who is quarantining,” he said.
Occupational therapists, staff who work with English-language learners, and school psychologists—who also work in other buildings—provide Steckler with a detailed schedule of where they are at all times and who they’re working with to help him quickly identify close contacts in case they test positive.
He manages to this all done quickly—in about half an hour—having done it so many times.
“Early in the game when we opened up in September … I’d be here from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. at night making phone calls,” he said.
Steckler is determined to see the bright side in all of this. For example, relationships have been a focal point this semester, and the school devotes every Thursday to solidifying teacher-student bonds.
He thinks the crisis has made educators better at their jobs, and that many of the adjustments his school has made will last after the crisis has passed.
“It’s showing me what I can do differently in a normal year,” he said. “It’s made me be a little bit more innovative as a leader.”
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