‘As Safe as We Can Make Them’

Health services supervisor Erika Yoney says that Moorhead schools are as safe as they can possibly make them, but still urges those with health risks to take precautions. (Photo/Russ Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

Registered nurse Erika Yoney likes to paraphrase a lesson learned from Dr. Joycelyn Elders: “You can’t educate without health, and without health, you can’t educate.”

Since she rejoined the Moorhead School District as its health services supervisor – a new position established last summer – Yoney has been in the middle of a situation where balancing both has been a high-wire act. As a member of the district’s Incident Command, she has helped grapple with changing precautions and issues as the pandemic has progressed. Yoney and her health services team have helped the district turn on a dime through a school year that has swerved from hybrid learning split between classroom and home to full-time distance learning and now, since Jan. 4, the cautious return of all students to face-to-face classrooms.

“I have to give credit and my admiration to our kids,” the nurse says. “They have been phenomenal about masking and distancing and adjusting to all the changes. I’m proud and grateful that they have been willing to do not-so-easy things that keep all of us safe.

“It’s fun now to be able to reintroduce some of the little things we all have missed. They get to eat lunch in the lunchroom once in while, instead of always at their desks,” she notes, also applauding the food service workers who have delivered meals to classrooms and prepared grab-and-go for students studying at home. “It’s great to be able to get out of their classroom and move around a little more.”

The basics – masks, social distance and hand-washing – remain the foundation of a safe return to school. But some of the measures taken during the hybrid learning phase are being relaxed now that everyone is back on the campuses.

Distance is one difference. Guidelines provided by the state departments of health and education advice that now that infection rates have moderated, a distance of three feet – rather than six – is adequate. That’s good news, since the whole class (rather than half) populated their classroom every day. When they must of necessity interact more closely, the youngsters work together in pods of three to limit their exposure to the whole crew.

Yoney admits the staff did expect a bump in infection rates when K-2 students arrived Jan. 4 in the first wave of returning classmates. But that hasn’t been seen so far. “Early in December, we saw 34 students testing positive each week and 21 staff positives. The same week, 314 students and 80 staff were in quarantine.

“We get a report every Thursday. Last week we had two positive students and no staff at all, with 30 students and six staff quarantined.”

She points out that school numbers reflect what’s going on outside their walls. “The school can really work hard, but this takes place in the context of the community, and the community’s numbers have come down. But even when numbers were high, we were able to maintain relatively safe classrooms.”

When Yoney agreed to head the district’s health services, it marked a homecoming. The Moorhead native – a 2000 MHS grad who went on to earn her bachelor’s at MSUM – had worked here as a school nurse until five years ago, when she moved to the state department of health as its school health consultant: “I love policy and improving health access for children.” As the coronavirus arrived in Minnesota one year ago this month, her role shifted to contact tracing and developing schools’ response to the virus. She returned to the Moorhead schools in July, where her husband is special education coordinator. They have two children, a daughter who graduated from MHS last spring and a son in 8th grade.

Her state-level contact tracing experience has come in handy. She and her staff of four RNs, three LPNs and health technicians stationed in each school operate what she calls the central in-box for tracking the health of the school population. Parents are provided with a self-screening tool for their kids. If symptoms are detected, the nursing staff calls the home to make recommendations and identify contacts. Since parents often don’t know who their child has spent time with, teachers offer guidance on who has been exposed and needs to be quarantined, a requirement that can last up to 24 days. Meanwhile, names are forwarded to the quarantine care team from the victim’s building, who help with everything from attendance issues and homework assignments to nutrition services.

“I feel like this is the Academy Awards,” the supervisor jokes as she expresses her thanks to a lengthy list people who have kept the system running through a year of unprecedented challenges – her staff, first and foremost, but also teachers and the staff of school services departments who have successfully shifted gears over and over under the most difficult conditions.

“I’m extraordinarily proud of our health services team,” she says. “We’ve lived up to a motto we adopted early on: ‘Be like bamboo – strong but flexible.”

Meanwhile, teachers and staff have met myriad challenges, both instructional and personal. Not the least is maintaining their own health. Yoney says her nurses have been working with Clay County Public Health for weeks. As vaccine becomes available, faculty and other workers have been contacted. Only a few hundred who want the protection, she says, remain, out of a workforce of 1,600.

Yoney looks forward to the day when the worst of the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror: “When it’s no longer our primary focus, I want our primary focus to return to what’s most important of all – remembering how kids are whole, entire beings who have come through incredible stress and hard challenges. I have big dreams to how to serve kids and families better.” Among challenges to be overcome, she notes, are significant pediatric dental needs in the district.

“My dream,” she says, is that we can walk away from this with a lasting reminder of how incredibly important schools are to our lives. What happens here – learning, sports, music, the works – is magical and life-changing. They hold a very central place in our community.”

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