PAOLA — Paola school board members agree metrics should be defined stating when the district should shift from Phase 1 to Phase 2 of its Safe Return to School Plan, but they have had a hard time reaching a consensus on what those metrics should be.
School board members discussed the topic during their Nov. 8 board meeting. It was the first school board meeting since a work session Oct. 27 during which Paola USD 368 administrators, school board members, teachers and parents brainstormed possible modifications to the district’s COVID-19 protocols.
During that work session, all of the participating groups agreed the decision to transition between phases should be made building by building and not district wide. School board members agreed with that assessment at their Nov. 8 meeting.
But school board members reached an impasse when they tried to decide what metric should be used to determine shifting from Phase 1 to Phase 2.
The school district has been operating in the first phase of its two-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, during which masks would be required. But an exact number wasn’t previously determined.
During the Nov. 8 school board meeting, board member Scott Golubski initially made a motion to move to Phase 2 for 28 days, which would be two 14-day incubation cycles, once positive cases at a school building reached 5 percent of the student and staff population. Fellow board members Randy Rausch and Kelly Franke joined Golubski in voting for the motion, but it failed with Michelle Latto, Amanda Martell and Cathy Macfarlane voting against the motion. Board member Tim Kelley abstained, which counted as a vote against the motion.
Martell then made a motion that also used the 5 percent metric but changed 28 days to 14 days. That motion also failed, with Martell, Latto and Golubski voting for it, and Franke, Rausch and Macfarlane opposing it. Kelley once again abstained.
Franke said her biggest issue was the days, as she pushed for the 28 days in the past and felt she needed to continue to support that.
Macfarlane said she doesn’t like the idea of only using one metric, in this case percent of positive cases at a building. She said that simplifies a complex issue, and she thinks other metrics, such as absentee rates, should be considered.
“I don’t like using just one number, I think there’s more to it than that,” said Macfarlane, who added that if only the one metric is used, she thinks the number should be higher than 5 percent.
Macfarlane also questioned the need to be in Phase 2 for a full 28 days because when cases spiked earlier in the year at the middle school, numbers had already dropped back down within 14 days.
At one point, the board members voted 7-0 to change wording in the plan to building by building rather than district wide and then appeared to possibly table the metric discussion until an agreement could be made, but multiple board members expressed concern with not defining a clear metric.
Martell and Latto both specifically stated that a decision really needed to be made at the board meeting.
Golubski then asked Macfarlane to make a motion, so Macfarlane made a motion setting the metrics at 8 percent and 14 days. The motion passed, with Franke voting against it and Kelley abstaining.
The COVID-19 discussion continued, with multiple board members expressing their frustration with county officials who chose not to remove the word “quarantine” from the health department’s close contact letter that the school district helps distribute to parents.
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.
School board member Cathy Macfarlane previously has pointed out that 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.”
She reiterated those concerns during the Nov. 8 meeting, even stating that she talked about it with an attorney at a recent Kansas Association of School Boards conference.
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.
Macfarlane mentioned that home rule does not give the school board power to keep another governmental entity from fulfilling its legal duty, which is something Superintendent Matt Meek also has warned the board about.
The school board members then questioned the wording the school district includes in the email sent out to parents in which the county health department’s letter is attached. The wording talks about modified quarantines and explains the options parents and students have based on the current Safe Return to School Plan.
Meek said the wording was there because school nurses were receiving calls with questions from parents who had received the county’s letter.
Macfarlane made a motion to change the wording in the school district’s message to simply state: “The following is being sent on behalf of Miami County Health Department. For further clarification, refer to District Plan for Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuation of Services document.” There would then be a link to the online document.
The motion passed 6-1, with board member Scott Golubski voting against it. Golubski said he believed the existing wording was fine.