County superintendents urge community 'collaborative effort' in mitigating COVID

CENTREVILLE — School district superintendents from around St. Joseph County are urging the community to stay diligent and adhere to county health department protocols as COVID-19 cases increase in the county.

The plea to the community came in the form of a letter written Monday and released Wednesday morning by 10 county superintendents from Burr Oak, Centreville, Colon, Constantine, Mendon, Nottawa, Sturgis, Three Rivers, White Pigeon and the St. Joseph County Intermediate School District, as well as Constantine’s associate superintendent.

As of Tuesday, there have been 1,049 cases of COVID-19 in St. Joseph County since the start of the pandemic, with 17 deaths reported from the virus. However, the county has seen a huge surge in positive cases in the past few weeks, with over 240 reported since Oct. 13 and six new cases reported Tuesday.

The letter from superintendents acknowledges the increase, as well as reports from Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency (BHSJ) officials of “COVID fatigue” in the county.

“Health officials cite that the rise in cases is largely due to a lack of safe practices -- mainly distancing and mask wearing -- in social settings and community gatherings outside of the school community,” the letter states. “In St. Joseph County there have been minimal positive cases of students in schools, but they are exponentially growing in the community at large.”

The superintendents warn that if community cases continue to trend upwards, schools may be forced to implement additional restrictions to prevent continued infection, including cancellations of extracurricular activities such as athletics, band, choir and drama. The worst case scenario, the letter states, is school shifting to a distance learning model “periodically or for an extended period of time” until COVID cases decline.

“Staff and student safety remains our number one priority, but we also acknowledge the important role schools serve for our broader community,” the letter states. “School staff are vital in meeting the academic, social, emotional and physical wellbeing of students and families. We must do everything we can to keep schools safe and open.”

The letter urges the community to help keep schools open by having any social and community gatherings continue to adhere to “safe mitigation protocols.” These include wearing a mask when people go out, staying home when you’re sick, washing hands often, keeping socially distant from others not in your immediate household, and thorough and effective disinfecting. 

"Together, we will get through these trying times but we know it will take a collaborative effort," the letter states.

ISD Superintendent Teresa Belote, who helped author the letter, said similar letters have been sent to communities all over the state to help continue face-to-face instruction in schools.

“This has been a discussion with superintendents all across the state, and the real goal is to keep schools operating with face-to-face contact,” Belote said. “We’re just sharing information about how we can all work together with that shared goal of keeping kids in person.”

Belote said keeping schools open face-to-face is “absolutely” important during this time, and that while there hasn’t been a huge increase of cases in county schools, contact tracing and community spread impacts being able to continue in-person education in schools.

“It’s small numbers in our school systems, but the contact tracing can have a larger impact on the ability to provide quality in-school instruction,” Belote said. “That’s why it takes a collective effort.”

Belote said the community has been supportive so far with “finding a balance” in taking care of students and staff, and hopes the community can work together to help mitigate the spread of the virus.

“This is just a common voice reminder that despite our best efforts, we are seeing community numbers go up,” Belote said. “We’re all going to get through this, but working together is the key.”

The full version of the letter is attached to this story below.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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