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Schools reject masks

Arrival of more virulent COVID convinces only Goessel to take added precautions

Staff writer

Despite detection of the county’s first case of delta variant COVID-19, only one of its five school districts will mandate masks in its buildings when classes begin this week and next.

None will require students or staff to be vaccinated against the virus to attend school.

Goessel was the lone exception among four school boards that met Monday evening when it voted to require masks for students and staff.

Marion, Hillsboro, and Centre all made masks optional. Peabody-Burns will vote tonight on plans that recommend, but don’t necessarily require. masks.

In a striking departure, court officials acted to protect adults from a strain of COVID-19 requiring masks even for people vaccinated.

Judge Michael Powers issued an order Thursday for courtroom in the 8th Judicial District, which includes Marion County.

A total of 16 active cases of COVID-19 in the county as of Tuesday, but only one was listed as delta variant.

However, county health nurse Diedre Serene said there probably are more because sequencing to determine a strain can take up to seven days.

Breakthrough infections of delta variant can occur in fully vaccinated people, but the virus’ effect is less severe.

“With the original strain of the virus (CDC) estimated that a person who tests positive could infect two people,” Serene said. “With the delta variant, they say one person can infect up to five.”

All five district superintendents have been invited to discuss plans with officers of the county health department today.

Mark Crawford, Goessel’s superintendent, said his district’s board mandated masks after “long deliberation.”

“The board recognizes this is not a popular decision for everyone and it could affect morale,” he said. “However, we just want to do the right thing.”

He said the board would reassess its policy next month.

Goessel stopped short of requiring eligible students and staff to be vaccinated, but Crawford estimated 80% of staff already had shots.

Marion district superintendent Aaron Homburg acknowledged the uncertainty caused by the delta virus, but still thought the district had solid plans in place.

The district has no documented cases of students exposed to the virus at school.

“At this point, I still don’t see the necessity of saying we’re all going to be in masks,” he said, adding that masks would be mandatory on district buses.

Vaccines are also are optional for students and staff.

“At this point the staff who want to be vaccinated have been, and the kids whose parents wanted them vaccinated have been,” Homburg said.

Homburg said the board could revisit plans if circumstances changed.

“If there is anything we have learned in the last 18 months, it’s that things can change,” he said.

The district is developing a rapid testing program with the help of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

“Having that technology available to us is wonderful,” he said, adding that students who had been exposed might undergo a “modified quarantine” by wearing masks and getting regular tests.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “We had students that were gone up to 30 days last year. It doesn’t have to be like that this year.”

Other districts are developing testing plans or have their own.

Centre superintendent Larry Geist said students who showed symptoms of respiratory illness will be would receive s 15-minute test.

Masks will be optional for Centre students who start school tomorrow, but Geist said administrators reserved the right to require them if needed.

Hillsboro superintendent Max Heinrichs said his district was working on a testing plan with Hillsboro Community Hospital.

Although the CDC did not suggest such action, the district spent $150,000 equipping all of its HVAC units with ionizers to improve air quality in its school buildings last fall.

“We started the school year late last year,” he said of efforts to update its buildings for safe social distancing.

Hillsboro will not require vaccines, but Heinrichs estimated 90% of staff were vaccinated. The district gave them a day off to get their shots.

Goessel’s Crawford said vaccines were a “personal family choice” and estimated 80% of Goessel’s staff were vaccinated.

The district is looking at rapid testing options — especially ones with swabs that aren’t painful, but plans to test for other infectious agents as well.

“If a student or staffer shows symptoms, we want to test them not only for COVID-19 but also flu and strep,” he said.

Board members are striving to “systemize the district’s response” to a virus they fear will be around for a while.

“These are interesting times. In all of this there needs to be grace and peace,” he said. “….These are very divisive times.”

Last modified Aug. 11, 2021

 

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