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Sherry Richmond (left) and her daughters Abby (center) and Gracie hold up signs supporting Paola High School staff for all they are doing to keep the school open Wednesday morning, Sept. 2. Abby and Grace play for the Lady Panther volleyball team. The Miami County Health Department came out with new “close-contact” guidelines Wednesday, Sept. 2, that could end some of the quarantines currently in place for students.

A modification to the Miami County Health Department’s “close-contact” guidance may allow some staff and students who are currently in quarantine to return to the classroom and sports practice fields.

Positive COVID-19 cases have popped up in all the Paola, Louisburg and Osawatomie school districts.

If masks are being worn correctly in a classroom where a positive COVID-19 case has occurred, a student or teacher would not have to complete a 14-day quarantine even if they were within 6 feet of the infected individual.

The Miami County Health Department released public health guidance for K-12 schools on Wednesday, Sept. 2, that modifies what constitutes close contact in a classroom setting in order to clear up some confusion caused by a conflict between Gov. Laura Kelly’s Executive Order 20-59 and recommendations from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE).

The executive order stipulates that 6 feet of separation in a classroom is not necessary if masks are being worn, but KDHE has said if the individual has been within 6 feet for 10 minutes or more, even when wearing a mask, a 14-day quarantine is required.

Some school districts based their reopening plans on the governor’s order. The Miami County Health Department has been following KDHE’s direction — as have county health departments across the state.

“We’ve had a significant uptick in cases over the last week, since last Thursday,” Christena Beer, the health department’s disease investigator, told county commissioners Wednesday, Sept. 2. “We have had a substantial amount of cases associated with the school districts, both with students, with staff, parents, guardians, family members who have tested positive.”

Miami County had 231 cases on Sept. 2, 40 of which are active. The county added 23 new cases over the weekend, Beer said. She estimated that more than 200 people were quarantined.

“With each new situation that we have had, we have consulted with KDHE to get the most up-to-date guidance,” Beer said. “We were some of the first schools to open with in-person instruction. One of the main issues that we’ve had to figure out is that the Executive Order 2059 allows school districts to space students less than six feet apart.”

The new guidance for K-12 schools notes that because mask wearing has proven to be an effective way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, individuals who are wearing masks and are in close contact (6 feet for 10 minutes or more) with an infectious individual are considered low risk for contracting COVID-19.

In the guidelines, the county health department said it does not recommend excluding students and staff who are in close contact of a COVID-19 positive individual, as long as masks were being worn correctly, covering nose and mouth. The modification is supported by Dr. Donald Banks, the county’s health officer, who signed the document Wednesday. County commissioners also supported the modification and commended the health department for their tireless work over the past several months.

“Since March, Dr. Banks and the staff at the Miami County Health Department have felt comfortable knowing that masks do work,” Beer said. “We have evidence of that, real life evidence.”

Beer said the close-contact modification is based on current data and science, as well as other expert analysis from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), KDHE, Johnson County Department of Health and Environment and Children’s Mercy Hospital.

Miami County Commission Chairman Rob Roberts explained the close-contact modification to parents and school patrons who had concerns about quarantines. He also explained that quarantine decisions are directives of the state and county health departments and health officers. The County Commission does not set quarantines.

Roberts said, during a Kansas City-area conference call Wednesday morning, medical experts issued a dire warning that Kansas and Missouri would see a sharp increase in cases. He urged everyone to take the health guidelines seriously.

The document states the modification reflects the use of masks within school settings. The county’s school districts require masks to be worn by students, staff and vendors.

“Community transmission of COVID-19 is currently moderate-to-high in Miami County,” Beer said.

Beer said there will continue to be cases in schools.

The close-contact modification only applies to the classroom.

Individuals who were unmasked within 6 feet for 10 cumulative minutes or more in a single day or participated in a high-risk activity with a COVID-19 positive individual during their infectious period or were directly exposed to respiratory droplets for any amount of time must be quarantined for 14 days from their last interaction with the individual, according to the guidelines.

The health department’s guidance defines high-risk exposures, low-risk exposures and no exposure.

One of the high-risk categories that the commissioners, county staff and health department representatives discussed was high-risk sports such as football, wrestling or basketball.

Rita McKoon, county health department director, said some football teams have been quarantined in because a player(s) tested positive.

County Administrator Shane Krull relayed that message during the regular meeting.

“If you have one positive case in football, chances are your whole team is going to be quarantined,” he said.

For a list of high, low and no risk exposures, as well as more detailed information about the quarantine process and other health guidance, consult the county health department’s “COVID-19 in K-12 Schools: Public Health Guidance for Administrators” document released Wednesday. The full document is available on the county’s website.

“COVID is like nothing we’ve ever seen before,” McKoon said. “We’ve never had to do this before, ever.”

News Editor Doug Carder can be reached at (913) 294-2311 or doug.carder@miconews.com.

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