The Osawatomie USD 367 school board on Monday, Nov. 8, was trying to make sense of an email sent out earlier that day which left the impression the county was not going to remove the word “quarantine” from the health department’s close contact letter as previously thought.
“I don’t know what to tell the board at this point,” Superintendent Justin Burchett said. “My understanding from the County Commission when they met in October (as the County Health Board) was to go through the process of modifying that quarantine letter and removing the word quarantine from it.”
Burchett said that has not happened.
“And this email today indicates it is not going to happen,” he said.
County Commission Chair Rob Roberts said during the commission’s meeting Wednesday, Nov. 10, the email was sent out by a county official at Roberts’ request.
Roberts said the email was sent as a memo, not a directive, and it was not intended to convey the county had decided not to modify the close contact letter.
“This whole memo was nothing more than ‘Hey, this is where we are. We’re still working on it,’” Roberts said. “And we should have said that better — my fault on that.”
But the Osawatomie school board was not alone in thinking the language would not be changed.
During their Nov. 8 meeting, multiple Paola USD 368 school board members also expressed their frustration with county officials who chose not to remove the word “quarantine” from the health department’s close contact letter.
Both school districts help the county by distributing the letter to parents.
While the Louisburg USD 416 school board did not discuss the email at its Nov. 8 meeting, some board members have been critical of the county’s close contact letter because they consider it to be an unenforceable document.
For a short period earlier this fall semester, Louisburg stopped sending out the letters but has since resumed distributing them.
Paola school board member Randy Rausch said he doesn’t believe the county is being a good partner, and he questioned whether the school district needed to send out the letters at all.
The Osawatomie board and Burchett also talked briefly about what the legal ramifications would be if the school district decided to go in a different direction.
“I don’t have the answers,” Burchett said of the legal ramifications. “That’s not the email I was expecting to get.”
Burchett said the school district could stay status quo or tell the county “we are not going to do this. We’re going to do something different. And I don’t know yet what to tell you the outcome of that decision would be.”
The Osawatomie superintendent said he doesn’t know if there is a risk from a legal standpoint if the district goes against the Miami County Board of Health.
“I’d like to have time to ask those questions, not only from the county, and the county’s legal counsel but also from KASB (Kansas Association of School Boards) legal counsel.”
Roberts said the county really had not communicated much to the school districts where it stood on the close contact letter since it met as the health board in October.
“A month ago or thereabouts, we discussed the possibility of changing some wording in the COVID-19 letter sent to parents,” Roberts said. “This board talked about doing a potential notification letter.”
Roberts said nothing has been decided at this point, and he knew with all the local school boards meeting Monday, Nov. 8, the county should inform the school districts that no decision has been made so the language is staying status quo — for now.
“Frankly this board’s met several times, talked about it and hasn’t come to any conclusion on what has to be changed,” Roberts said.
Roberts reiterated Nov. 10 the email was done as a memo, not as policy, to let the districts know the county had not made a decision regarding changing the language.
“It doesn’t say we aren’t doing it, it doesn’t say we are doing it, it just says here’s where we are today,” Roberts said. “As a matter of fact the exact (wording) that was used was the board will leave the letter as is for the time being.”
Roberts said he and other county officials will be working on the letter and will make recommendations to the full County Commission, hopefully in the next week or two.
The chairman listed several points about potential changes to the letter in question form: “How do we shorten the letter? How do we get to the point? Do we just strictly go to a quarantine? Is the modified process still something we need to do?”
Roberts said the reason it’s called modified quarantine is that it was a negotiation between the school board superintendents and the county health department this summer before school started.
“They (superintendents) did not want us to have a full quarantine. Not that a full quarantine isn’t legal, it certainly is,” Roberts said. “They wanted to be able to keep kids in school, keep them in classrooms so there was a cooperative conversation between the two.”
Burchett said he doesn’t believe modified quarantine is really the issue. It is “enforced quarantine verses unenforced quarantine,” he said.
“I do believe the county has legal statutory authority to enforce a quarantine, and it’s happened maybe only six times since this has started,” Burchett said. “They are asking the school districts to follow good public health policy and accept unenforced quarantine and honor that, and that’s what we’ve done.”
Burchett said he thought the modified quarantine has been for the betterment of the district and betterment of the families because it has allowed kids to stay in the classroom by observing certain safety protocols, he said.
Several parents from Louisburg, Paola and Osawatomie also expressed their frustration with the letters, among other topics, during the public comment portion of the county’s Nov. 10 meeting.
“Nobody has any desire to upset the citizens or make them frustrated about it,” Roberts said toward the end of the meeting. “So hopefully in the next week or two the group of us (working to draft revisions) will be able to come back and make some suggestions to the county commissioners to make some changes (to the letter).”