After much discussion, the Hiawatha School Board voted unanimously Monday night to only quarantine students and staff who have at least two symptoms of COVID-19.
This deviates from guidelines established by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that USD 415 had adopted as part of it’s Return to Learn Plan. According to the KDHE, if a person is considered a “close contact” — meaning they are within 6 feet of the positive person for 10 minutes or more — then that person is required to quarantine for 10 days, regardless of whether they had symptoms. Only in a situation of a mask exemption, as determined by the health department if the mask mandate is in place, then a quarantine is not required if the close contacts wore masks and are asymptomatic.
This discussion came at Monday night’s regular meeting as the board members were reviewing a mask mandate within district facilities that had been in place for two weeks in an effort to reduce the number of students in quarantine. When the mask mandate had been put in place by a special vote of the board, at that time there were more than 100 students in quarantine, but only a small percentage of actual positive cases.
The move by the board members also came after several district patrons expressed their opinions about the mask mandates during public comment — asking the board to rescind it and some asked the district to present actual science showing that masks work.
District head nurse Erin Wenger gave her health update, informing the board that as of Monday there were 16 active cases in the county, down by more than half as of two weeks ago when the board implemented a mask mandate. She said the district’s numbers had also drastically improved with a total of six positive cases with three of those in the high school and only 26 in quarantine. She said those in quarantine were from household or other contacts and not school contacts.
There was some concern with taking the masks off and potentially perpetuating the spread of COVID, however board members felt that actual spread within the district had been minimal.
Concern over the possibility of quarantines escalating after removing the mask mandate is what led the board to make a decision to change the guidelines to only quarantine symptomatic close contacts.
There was also discussion of keeping the mask mandate in place for at least another week until after official student count day. This count day determines state funding for the district and as board member Ian Schuetz pointed out, enrollment was already down and he was concerned with district funds being cut further.
“We can’t pretend like our funding doesn’t matter,” he said, but pointed out the district had come to a “fork in the road,” where they had to either keep masks to keep kids in school or change district policy.
Superintendent Lonnie Moser told the board members that there is a little leeway for count day — such as if the student comes the day following “count day” then they could still be counted, but if a student is gone for 10 days of quarantine then that potentially could be a strike against the district.
Schuetz said he was also against quarantining kids without symptoms, but said without a change in district policy they would be right back in the same situation as two weeks ago.
It was also the general consensus to let the mask mandate expire as of the original date of 8 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 14.
Board President Tom Simmer said he was concerned with positive numbers increasing if the mask mandate was not continued, but did not that since the board was changing the quarantine policy then those numbers wouldn’t be as high as what the district was dealing with the first two weeks of school.
“If our numbers go up we know we made the wrong call,” Simmer said.
Board member Amy Kopp said that parents needed to step up and make sure their kids were kept at home if they had two symptoms of COVID. With allergy season in full gear, many kids are showing some symptoms of stuffy head, and there is also RSV circulating among many students.
Board member Keith Erdley also requested that even though students would not be quarantined, she felt the district still had the responsibility to notify parents that their student was a close contact if the situation arose. Then it would be up to the parent to monitor that student and keep them at home if they chose.
District officials have confirmed that masks will still be required on district transportation, per federal order.