A new outbreak of COVID-19 has prompted a high school in east-central Minnesota to immediately move back to distance learning, also forcing the boys basketball team to cancel its season just as the playoffs begin.
Pine City High School, which returned to full in-person learning March 1, is back in the distance learning model Wednesday after recognizing an outbreak that has so far resulted in nine students testing positive for the disease and approximately 90 more students in quarantine.
In a letter to parents, Superintendent Dr. Curt Tryggestad said the high school is "experiencing what is perhaps its most pervasive outbreak of COVID-19 to date."
"We moved from zero cases to at least nine cases in three days. We expect more confirmed cases in the coming days," Triggestad wrote.
Principal Troy Anderson informed Tryggestad that positive tests and exposures have pushed the school's level of distance learners from 100 to about 250, including 50 athletes. That's more than one-third of the school's enrollment.
Tryggestad so what is "most concerning" is the county's inability to "connect the dots" when contact tracing, meaning there is unidentified community transmission happening.
"Public Health believes that there may be a person or persons who are attending when not feeling well or are asymptomatic (showing no symptoms). We just don’t know," Tryggestad said. "In the past, we have been able to identify and isolate those affected using contact tracing. This time there are not common threads other than those affected are Pine City students."
The outbreak has forced the Pine City boys basketball team to cancel its season. The Dragons were 13-5 and the regular season champions of the Great River Conference. They were scheduled to open the section playoffs Thursday against Sauk Centre, but that game has been forfeited, effectively ending their season.
Pine City High School will remain in distance learning through Friday, March 26. The school is on spring break March 29 through April 2. The district plans to return high schoolers to in-person learning on Tuesday, April 6.
"I really wish we didn’t have to make a learning model change, but under the circumstances it is the right thing to do. Each of our neighboring schools have needed to do a hard-reset at some point during this school year. Unfortunately, this time it’s our turn," said Tryggestad.
The outbreak in Pine City follows a situation that is unfolding in Carver County, where the B.1.1.7. variant (the U.K. variant) has led to dozens of cases and an alert from state health officials to do everything possible to limit transmission of the more contagious strain.
It is unclear if the Pine City outbreak involves one of the more contagious variants or if it is the coronavirus strain (SARS-CoV-2) responsible for the global pandemic.
The state recommended a two-week shutdown of youth sports in Carver County starting last Monday, after a cluster of 140 cases were linked back to sports and recreation pursuits. Of these cases, 32 were later confirmed to be of the more contagious B.1.1.7. U.K. variant of the virus, and 67 tests are still pending.
“We are very concerned about this (U.K.) variant and its rapid spread. It has the potential to be a setback to our hard-fought progress against the disease,” Dan Huff, an assistant health commissioner, told reporters Monday.