Monday was the first day for Corvallis Superintendent Jon Konen to be back at work since Nov. 9 following a bout with COVID-19.
He missed 12 school days and 21 days of interaction with coworkers.
“I’m finally back,” Konen said. “I know some educators who have been out 30-some days.”
After meeting with a couple of friends and taking precautions on Nov. 1, he learned his friends tested positive for COVID-19 on Nov. 9 and he began isolation.
Konen tested positive on Nov. 14 and said he experienced all the symptoms associated with COVID.
“It’s weird how it hits different people differently and that’s the unpredictable nature of COVID that I don’t think a lot of people understand,” Konen said. “It is more unpredictable than the flu. I’m one of those guys unfortunately that has asthma and lung problems, so I had to have additional medication.”
Konen said he went through all the symptoms starting with a cough, headache and exhaustion.
“I think out of all of it the most noticeable was the exhaustion, for me,” he said. “It left me almost incapacitated for a couple of days and I had the the chills.”
He had a temperature, lost his sense of taste and smell for a couple of days and often felt unable to breathe like he had a weight on his chest. He also experienced confusion and the inability to wake or stay awake.
“It was just different,” Konen said. “Every day had something new, so that is different from the flu. It is unpredictable as to which symptoms you’re going to get. Some people had mild cold symptoms, some were asymptomatic. I do have asthma, I’m immunocompromised and being unable to breathe fully was huge. I had a lot of brain fuzz. I tried to conduct a meeting but luckily people told me to hold off, they were being kind.”
Three weeks from exposure Konen said he is still feeling exhausted with a headache.
Konen said a surprising emotion that went along with physical illness was the feeling of guilt.
“You’re trying to do all the right things and then you still get it,” he said. “You’re missing out on your work, your team and your family. There are many aspects. I’ve talked with other educators too and there is almost a guilt-shaming in the fact that they got it and are affecting the whole school or district.”
He is trying to get his staff to understand this is a pandemic and the school is going to deal with it in a positive light. He said wearing a mask, social distancing, frequent hand washing and staying home if you don’t feel well were messages sent out to keep people healthy, not shame those who tested positive for COVID.
Corvallis Schools has extra mitigation strategies requiring mask-wearing, taking temperatures and not meeting anywhere in the district with over 10 people.
“We’re seeing the highest ratio is with adults rather than our students, it’s a skewed ratio of 1,200 students to 200 adults,” Konen said. “Just before Thanksgiving break, we had to close the middle school and primary school because we were starting to get cases connected to each other. Until then we felt it was brought into our district, but we feel that shifting.”
On Monday, Konen reported that the number of positive cases had dropped. Corvallis took risk assessment information from Rocky Mountain Labs and then created their own matrix. They have no hard and fast number but look at each situation. They note the difference between a regular classroom teacher versus someone who teaches a specialty class like physical education who teaches a higher number of students. In the high school some cases quarantined 10 to 15 students, some were quarantining the whole classroom and some even more.
“Some classes weren’t quarantining anyone because the teacher feels like they were staying six feet apart from everyone in their classroom,” Konen said. “At the primary level, it is a lot harder to social distance with our little guys. Middle schoolers and high schoolers are conscious about social distancing. Adults are conscious about it as well. We have been able to quarantine less at the middle and high schools.”
Other factors include if a student is in a sport or what classes they have.
On Monday, Corvallis Schools had 55 cases in quarantine (44 students and 11 staff members) with no adult positive cases.
Konen credits the low numbers with the middle and primary schools being closed for two weeks, almost like a reset.
“[Before closures] we were hitting about 150 between quarantining and isolation in district, and it has dropped down to 44 right now,” he said. “We know that when we are not in session the numbers are different. We know those two weeks work — that mitigation strategy works. The numbers have dropped significantly.”
Being able to fill positions, with substitutes or other staff, is key for schools to stay open but once the school has 8-12 staff members gone, the school is not able to find enough substitutes.
“We notice that if we have eight-12 staff members out, 25% of our staff out, we are having an extremely difficult time of keeping school open,” Konen said. “We are pulling people from all over and are looking at doubling up some of our classrooms which defeats the purpose of social distancing.”
Another key for schools to remain open is communication with families.
“It’s another positive for Corvallis that families have been so forthright with their health information and letting us know they are getting tested or their kids are getting tested,” Konen said. “That speeds up all of our contact tracing and helps us be as proactive as possible.”
Konen said the school does not have a “hard, fast number” of positive cases that would close the school.
“One student or staff member interacts differently with their situation, depending on their job, for a student if they are in a sport, what classes they have,” he said. “Every situation is different."
Having many students out for quarantine is also challenging.
“When there are more of your students out on quarantine than in person it is so hard to teach,” Konen said.
Corvallis has three platforms of education — remote education with teachers set up for educating online and students learning at home, onsite/in-person education where students and staff are in the school and when those in-person students and staff are on isolation or quarantine.
“This summer when we were planning, we did not realize this third area,” Konen said. “We didn’t realize it would be so huge, but it is. We are having to spend a lot of time and effort into how we can support these teachers and families that are in quarantine. It might be only for three weeks, but it is a rotation of kids.”
Before Thanksgiving, one student hit their third quarantine but has not been COVID positive.
“When each quarantine is 14 days apiece, this student has been in remote learning more than onsite. Not his fault but just contact traced into those different quarantines,” Konen said. “We keep asking, are we better remote teaching or better onsite? That’s the constant battle for all school districts in Montana, trying to decide what’s best for our kids and what’s best for our community.”
He said staying open or going remote is controversial.
COVID is personal for Konen. He mourns the loss of the educator who recently died in Great Falls due to COVID. He was a fellow referee, coach and personal friend of Konen's.
“I knew him well,” Konen said. “That makes you be reflective. As a superintendent you have to look at your area, what your board philosophy is — do we stay open at all costs or look at the human factor of what’s happening in the school? That’s what makes the job of superintendent and board member so difficult right now. That local control brings it down to individual schools to stay open or not.”