Confusion was a common theme during the Paola School Board’s three-hour meeting Monday, Oct. 11.
Confusion about which COVID-19 guidelines to follow, confusion about what the county’s new wording will look like in letters sent to close contacts, and confusion about what changes to make to the district’s Safe Return to School Plan with so many unanswered questions remaining.
The County Commission, sitting as the Miami County Health Board, met with county health department officials Wednesday, Oct. 6, to discuss the letter currently being distributed.
The Louisburg USD 416 school board in September voted to stop transmitting the quarantine letter to close contacts because some members argued it was an unenforceable document.
“I’m concerned about the enforceability of the orders we have been transmitting in Louisburg,” Doug Shane told the health board on Oct. 6.
Shane, a Louisburg school board member, made it clear he was not representing the school board at the meeting but speaking as a county resident.
Instead of transmitting the letter, the district provides contact information so the county health department can notify families or staff members directly about close contacts.
Commissioner Tyler Vaughan said perhaps the solution is to change some of the language in the letter.
“It seems we can get through some of this political train wreck that we are in the middle of by simply changing the verbiage to notification,” Vaughan said. “You continue to do your process, and we notify (close contacts) with the guidelines that are out there, but we remove the term quarantine. That seems to continue to be problematic.”
Christena Beer, assistant director of the county health department, said because of the tedious process involved in determining close contacts for each case and limited resources, the health department relies on school districts to help disseminate information about close contact exposure. She said those partnerships with school districts are crucial to inform families in as timely a manner as possible.
“We are either contacting them directly of an exposure, or we are utilizing the schools’ communication platform to reach a large number of individuals who have been identified as a close contact,” she said.
Beer said the health department’s No. 1 goal is to reduce the risk of transmission, reduce the risk of mortality and morbidity and to make sure the department is doing everything it can to keep the community as safe and as healthy as possible.
“I think regardless of what the statutes are, regardless of what the loopholes are, regardless of the political climate, that’s our goal at the end of the day is just to let someone know, “hey, you have had close contact with an individual who tested positive and these are the things you should watch out for, this is the time frame that you should watch for those symptoms and this is what you do if you (or your child) has symptoms or if you have any concerns, this is what you should do moving forward,” Beer said.
Commission Chair Rob Roberts said it is imperative to get the notification to parents as quickly as possible.
“I just want mom and dad to know that potentially your child had this exposure. I want the parents to have the control over their children. That’s it,” Roberts said. “But if we don’t do our part in just telling them. Call it notification. I don’t care how we do it. In addition to that, it is imperative that we have every school district be our partners and provide that notification. That’s it.”
Commissioners agreed to revise the close contact letter but encouraged districtis to continue sending out the health department’s current letter.
The Louisburg school board voted 4-2 Monday night to resume transmitting the county’s quarantine letters while awaiting the new notification letter.
County Counselor Shelley Woodard said Tuesday, Oct. 12, the county is actively working on the letter but no timetable has been established for its completion.
“We want to make sure we do our due diligence,” Woodard said. “And that we aren’t doing anything that is expressly against state statutes.”
In an email Tuesday, Beer said drafting the letter is a collaborative process.
“We are still in the process of drafting the letter that will be used to notify individuals of an exposure to COVID-19 within a school setting, or while participating in a school-related activity,” Beer said. “It has been a collaborative effort between Miami County Board of Health, Miami County Local Health Officer, Miami County Health Department, Miami County Counsel, and Miami County schools working together as a community in being as consistent as possible in responding to this pandemic.
“Our county’s legal counsel is reviewing the legal authority and statutory requirements of all parties involved and once we have a follow-up meeting, we will have better direction on how to proceed,” Beer said.
In a letter to the school districts, Roberts said a draft of the new document will carry a title such as “Official Notification of COVID-19 Exposure” which will be authorized by the Miami County Board of Health and local health officer to be disseminated through the school communication platform with the understanding that the notification will not serve as a “formal order” to quarantine, upon receipt.
On Tuesday, Roberts said the school districts should continue following the procedures they have been doing as far as sending out the current letter and following the protocols outlined in their safe-return-to-school plans approved by their school boards.
“Nothing has changed,” he said.
PAOLA USD 368
The school district has been operating in the first phase of its three-phased Safe Return to School Plan since the start of classes in August. In the first phase, masks are optional, and students and faculty members who receive a letter from the county health department saying they are placed in modified quarantine due to being a close contact to a positive case can immediately return to school if they are asymptomatic and agree to wear a disposable surgical mask.
District officials previously have said a significant rise in cases could prompt the district to go into Phase 2, which would require students or staff members who are quarantined due to a close contact to both wear a mask and get a daily COVID-19 test if they want to return to school during their quarantine.
Masks would only be required under Phase 3 of the plan.
School board members agreed, during their Oct. 11 meeting, to eliminate Phase 2 of the plan and make Phase 3 the new Phase 2. Superintendent Matt Meek has said the logistics of conducting daily tests for all of the students on modified quarantine are not feasible with current staffing.
Much of the discussion during the meeting, though, revolved around what changes need to be made to the other two phases, including testing requirements.
The plan was revised during the Sept. 13 school board meeting to allow for a student in quarantine to be tested for COVID-19 in the afternoon if they want to participate in an after-school activity or athletic event without wearing a mask. The next day, though, Meek said he received an email from the health department stating that no student in modified quarantine should be participating in athletics while wearing a mask, so the district began requiring daily tests for all athletes in modified quarantine who wanted to play.
The school board members acknowledged that if the county changes wording in the letter to eliminate the word “quarantine,” it may require significant changes to the Safe Return to School Plan, but in the interim, they will move forward under the existing guidelines.
The School Board members did vote to modify both phases by adding wording pulled from Testing Plan 1, Strategy A of the recommendations from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment. The new wording allows any student who is symptomatic and receives parental permission to receive a rapid COVID-19 test at school. Tests also would be available to staff members who have symptoms.
“We’ve now become a walk-in clinic,” school board member Scott Golubski said in explanation of the change.
The school board members also agreed to continue to send out the health department’s notification letter using the school district’s system. Under the current policy, the school district provides information such as seating charts to the health department, which determines close contacts to a positive case and sends the school district the list of names that need to receive a letter. Board member Cathy Macfarlane did point out that it appears the policy contradicts a graphic from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment that states that the local health department “cannot provide a list of contacts to a school. The contact or contact’s guardian may inform the school of the contact’s status.”
The board members decided to move forward with the current policy unless they are told otherwise by the county.
The board members were also going to discuss what statistical benchmark they should use to go from Phase 1 to Phase 2, but they ultimately decided to table that discussion and include it during an upcoming special meeting.
The special meeting will likely be held Oct. 27 or 28 and include not only school board members but also teachers and members of the community with differing opinions. The school district plans to bring in an outside moderator for the meeting to ensure feedback is gathered in a productive manner.
Board members said they plan to schedule the meeting the last week in October so it will be before the next school board meeting but also hopefully far enough away to give the county time to release a draft of the revised letter.