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The Hiawatha School Board met in special session Tuesday morning and voted in a temporary two-week mask mandate for all students, faculty and staff inside all district facilities and will allow all students quarantined due to school contacts to return to the classroom with masks on.

This takes effect on Wednesday, Sept. 1.

Since there are currently no guidelines in place through KSHSAA pertaining to masks and sporting events, as part of the vote the board determined that masks will be required at indoor sporting events, with athletes required to wear them on the sidelines, but not during competition. Masks will not be required in the stands at football, or on the sidelines, nor at other outdoor athletic practices and competitions.

The unanimous vote came after nearly an hour of discussion over concern that nearly 12 percent of the student body was in quarantine with exposure to positive COVID-19 cases as of that day, while only 2 percent of the student body was actually positive.

Superintendent Lonnie Moser told board members that as of Monday there were a total of 124 students in quarantine — HES 25; HMS 48 and HHS 51. He expected 15 to come out of quarantine as of that day at the middle school, making the total still at 109. There were a total of 15 positive cases within the district as of Tuesday morning — HES 1; HMS 2 and HHS 12. He said the Brown County Health Department had reported 51 positive cases so far as of Monday, but several tests were conducted throughout the day so that number could change.

Not quite two weeks into the school year with 12 percent of the student body in quarantine was a concern to board members. Board President Tom Simmer said he had received several communications from parents who were concerned too — some against masks and some for masks. He also asked how other districts were faring and Moser reported that Holton had implemented a mask mandate a little over two weeks ago.

Simmer said he would rather see a mask mandate in place rather than scrambling to implement remote learning — which only 40 hours is allowed for the entire school year — or see extra burdens on teachers and students. He referenced a time during the previous academic year, when cases exploded late fall.

“We started wearing masks last year and our numbers started coming down,” he said.

When asked how sports teams were faring, HHS Activities Director Josh Mosher reported that the entire tennis team was out due to quarantines and that day’s competition had to be canceled. He said some other teams were seeing quarantined athletes, but so far had not had to pull out of any other competitions.

HMS Principal Kylie Gatz said several volleyball players got out of quarantine Monday and were able to compete that night at Atchison.

Head District Nurse Erin Wenger said district nurses haven’t been able to determine if all positives were due to school exposure or outside exposure prior to the start of school Aug. 19. She told the board that Robin Downard, county health officer, said if the district put a mask mandate in effect that she would put the mask-to-mask exemption back in place that would reduce the length of quarantines due to exposure.

Wenger recommended a mask mandate, noting “they still are shown to be effective mitigation,” of COVID-19.

Board member Keith Erdley said the science of masks shows that it can help protect students from getting COVID from people who are positive and may not even know it. He said the most important things to consider are keeping kids healthy and keeping them in school.

Board member Ian Schuetz said he was not an advocate of masks, but understood the need for them “as a bandaid” in this situation as the number of students quarantined continued to rise. Schuetz, who made the final motion for the vote, said he would only vote to implement the mask mandate on a temporary basis and urged all the board members to review district policies for further discussion at the Sept. 13 board meeting. He also said he would only approve the mask mandate if the current quarantined students were allowed to return back to school, wearing masks.

Board member Amy Kopp asked whether if students were able to spread out further than the mandatory 6 feet for social distancing, could the masks be removed and it was the general consensus of the board that yes this could be done.

There was discussion of the Test to Stay and options for quarantined students to find testing. The board previously voted to implement the “Test to Stay,” thanks to funding obtained from a grant to provide a nurse to implement testing on a daily basis for asymptomatic students considered to be close contacts for a 10-day period. Once a negative test was confirmed the student can return to class.

Wenger told the board that with the number in quarantine currently, that would exhaust a month’s supply of tests so she recommended implementing the Test to Stay once the current wave of quarantines was over.

Wenger said the hospital was not currently offering tests to asymptomatic people, but noted if families were able to find a reputable testing source in another community the district could also accept those results.

When asked how many of the current positives had been vaccinated for COVID, Wenger told the board there were two confirmed. She noted that even fully vaccinated people can still contract the virus and spread it — the vaccination is just recommended to make the illness less severe.

The board voted to keep the mask mandate in place until the morning of Tuesday, Sept. 14 with plans for review at the previous night’s board meeting.

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