Parker School Board addresses “Return to Learn” handbook regarding COVID

Dawn Rye | Writer
During last week’s school board meeting a motion was made to change the verbiage in the “Return to Learn” handbook regarding how administrative staff handle close contact with COVID.
Superintendent Donavan DeBoer said there had been six positive COVID cases that have fully recovered. He noted several parents had contacted the school that would like the board to look at the current process.
He explained the most significant thing is that there have been four different situations that the school had to do some contact tracing. He said the Department of Health (DOH) has not been “our friends,” and it’s been inconsistent. DeBoer commented what he was looking for was some guidance from the board on how the school needs to move forward. He explained when the school built their “Return to Learn” in August, there were no recommendations that would be a requirement if someone was in close contact.
Board member Erin Anderson said that she had read the Argus Leader articles that schools are overwhelmed with contact tracing. She noted that relying on the DOH is something the school should be doing.
Parent Amy Laible said she agrees the school is doing what the DOH recommends. She noted as a district, they have to decide at what point and who will take control regarding contact tracing. Laible explained teachers and staff have gone through all this work to contract trace students only to have the state come back and trump the school’s decision.
She commented her other concern is now that flu season is here, the board would be placed in a challenging position on how to handle the students who come to school sick.
Laible said the book’s guidelines need to be clear and once those guidelines are made, the school needs to enforce them.
“I don’t know what the answer is. I’m just saying, listening to other parents that is their concern. We have no strict guidelines,” noted Laible.
Board president Jason Chester said the Department of Health became overwhelmed. He noted, in reality, COVID is getting worse every day. Chester said the school is going to take the brunt to identify things.
“I still say the bulk of school districts are probably running almost exactly the same policy we are,” commented Chester.
Board member Ransom Jones said in all written communication, inconsistency was the primary factor and those inconsistencies come from the DOH. He noted the school policy “Return the Learn” was established based on the only guidelines provided. Jones said it has become difficult to receive the right answer. He noted everything to do with the school policy is consulted through the Department of Health. Jones commented the school is not a medical arena; it is an educational arena. Jones explained the Department of Health was allowed to have a hand in things because it needed guidelines from a medical standpoint.
“I do not think this is the time with the state of affairs to pull back from what we’re doing with mitigation of COVID-19,” said Jones.
He noted from his medical perspective; the hospitals are becoming more ominous. There is a peak with more patients that have COVID. He explained quarantine doesn’t mean that someone is sick; the original design was to prevent people who were not exposed to the exposed people.
Peggy Berens said her daughter was one of the students who were pulled off of quarantine. She explained her daughter felt she was not in close contact. Berens noted a lot of the other schools are going with the double mask policy. She asked what percentage of the students are wearing a mask?
DeBoer noted about five percent of the students wear a mask.
Berens said her feeling is if students wore a mask, the school would be better off when it came to cold and flu season.
Jones explained the entire contact tracing done at the school was all objective. He noted none of it was subjective and the Department of Health did ask questions over the phone. Jones said science says if someone sneezes or coughs, it will spread less with a mask. He feels wearing a mask is not going to stop the spread of COVID.
“The mask situation is a slippery slope in my mind,” said Jones.
Anderson said she agrees that wearing a mask would help; however, the teachers are already overwhelmed. She noted with the high school students; they are teenagers; they are going to push boundaries. She asked, is the board willing to add more stress to the staff, having students wear a mask during class?
Chester said the Department of Health has not changed its guidelines.
Chester commented the overall goal was the board wanted the school to be open. They don’t want to force kids into remote learning. He believes the school has dealt with COVID cases better than he thought they would.
DeBoer said that he agrees with the information parents are providing; however, space is not an option to spread the students out six feet apart in some classes.
He commented he has been in the educational industry for 23 years and likes seeing kids in school.
DeBoer explained some parents had received phone calls from the Department of Health and some parents have not. He said this situation is something the school can no longer allow to happen.
He noted he’s not opposed to the mask if that is the direction the board wanted to go. DeBoer said, in his opinion, it would have to be a requirement.
Jones said even if a student wears a mask, it is not exclusive criteria for a close contact quarantine. He noted his job requires him to wear a medical mask 40 hours a week; however, he has colleagues test positive from COVID-19 that wear masks all day. He explained a mask is a tool; it is not preventative, which is why there is a national pandemic.
Board member Greg Simmermon said as a parent, if a mask were required, he would instruct his daughter to wear it.
Anderson asked if the school requires students wear a mask are they going to send students home that don’t?
DeBoer said if the school requires students to wear a mask, 95 percent will comply. He noted his most significant concern when it comes to close contact is the school has to figure out a way to spread students out in the classroom.
DeBoer explained when he spoke with parents in August; parents wanted their kids back in school.
“Well, this is us, figuring it out. And it’s not pretty and it’s not perfect. But, having some kids out 14 days and maybe even 28 days and losing out on things. But, I have said all along kids ages 16-24 they are all losing out on things,” commented DeBoer.
Emily Bialas said students in junior high and high school have a greater chance of being in close contact than elementary students.
She noted elementary students are in the same classrooms where junior high and high school students move from class to class.
Chester commented there are 20 some students in a 600 square foot classroom. There are going to be students in the six feet apart range next to each other.
Jones said people in the community and students coming to school would be at risk of contracting the virus. He noted that hopefully, people are doing everything they can to mitigate their risk.

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