After five months of students being absent from the school buildings because of the COVID-19 pandemic, students wearing masks have returned to school for the 2020-21 school year.

Perham-Dent Public Schools started Tuesday, Sept. 1, with a different start than in most years. With more than one first day of school for students at the middle and high school levels. While elementary student have in-person classes daily, older students are split into two groups, or cohorts, that will be at the school on different days. On days they are not in school, the students will use distance learning. Cohorts A and B had different open house days and conference days to learn about how the school year will work with the COVID-19 pandemic continuing.

“We are elated that we get kids back in the building,” Prairie Wind Middle School Principal Scott Bjerke said.

Students being split into two different learning cohorts is not the only change for the schools this year, but there is also mandatory masking and social distancing in place. After the Minnesota Department of Education's guidelines schools will be requiring all students and staff unless they have a doctor’s note that states otherwise, will be required to wear a mask at all times. According to Superintendent Mitch Anderson, the school will be providing students with a couple of masks each.

“We also have disposable masks on hand should something happen to their mask at school,” he said. The school’s administration, teachers, and staff will be enforcing the new rules on mask-wearing in the schools.

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“Today is a trial run, we all know there’s a lot of things that we’re going to have to adjust and kind of get used to, but first and foremost the kids are back and that’s step one,” Bjerke said. “Step two will be getting the things in place that we need to have in place to help keep everybody safe, healthy, and get an education at the same time.”

With only half of the fifth, sixth, and seventh grades in the building on Tuesday, the middle school was using the first day to help kids get adjusted to the new protocols on social distancing, new staggered seating arrangements in classrooms, and new rules on when they can remove their masks and when they must be on, according to Bjerke. “There are things that are going to take a little time to get built into the routine but we’re going to get there in time,” he said.

Students in Paul Belka's fifth-grade class smile behind their masks as they sit far apart from each other on their first day at Prairie Wind Middle School in Perham on Tuesday, Sept. 1. (RosaLin Alcoser/Focus)
Students in Paul Belka's fifth-grade class smile behind their masks as they sit far apart from each other on their first day at Prairie Wind Middle School in Perham on Tuesday, Sept. 1. (RosaLin Alcoser/Focus)

Part of getting the new routine down can be done at home. According to Perham Health’s Dr. Kailey Witt, children who are not used to wearing a mask should practice wearing them so that they are used to wearing them for school. Parents should have a positive conversion with their children, especially younger children, about why they are wearing masks in school and explain the importance of keeping it on.

“We’re wearing these to protect ourselves but we’re also to protect our friends and teachers,” Witt said. “And it's helping to prevent the spread of germs.” She said many of the children will already be learning about germs or have already learned about germs so explaining why masks will help prevent the spread of germs will help them to understand the importance of wearing a mask.

“The more that parents talk to their kids about the importance of wearing masks the better off it's going to be,” Witt said. It is also important to talk to them about not touching other people’s masks or sharing masks with others.

It is important that parents also monitor their children for symptoms of illnesses, both COVID-19 and other illnesses that would need to be treated, and not send their children to school if they are sick. Witt said it is important for families to have multiple plans in place this year for if their children get sick or if the schools’ learning plan changes. If a child does become sick and it is concerning, parents should contact their healthcare provider sooner rather than later, she said.

“The biggest thing is that whatever guidelines the schools come out with, really try to follow those,” Witt said. “And try to remember that it’s not just to protect our children but the teachers and the staff, just really everybody at the school.”

School nurse guidelines

Perham Public School’s school nurse Sue Seip reminds parents that children should stay home if the student has:

  • Temperature is 100 or higher

  • New-onset cough or shortness of breath, not related to other chronic health condition

  • Or at least two of the following:

    • Chills

    • Muscle pain

    • Sore throat

    • Fatigue

    • Congestion

    • Loss of smell and or taste

    • Gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and or diarrhea