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District 300 back to school plan: No mandatory masks for now

 
By Renee Trappe
rtrappe@localsouthernnews.com
updated: 7/21/2021 12:49 PM

Classes will begin in August looking a lot more "normal" than they did a year ago, according to a back-to-school plan described in detail by Du Quoin District 300 Superintendent Matt Hickam.

The primary objective in 2021-22, Hickam said, is to have students in the classroom as much as possible and limit remote learning to only when necessary.

School will resume in person five full days a week. As long as Du Quoin remains in the "low" stage of COVID transmission, masks will not be mandated in school, although students are free to wear them. The CDC requires masks to still be worn on school buses, however.

Three-foot social distancing will be used in classrooms and the cafeteria, which will return to serving hot lunches, officials said. Students will not be given symptom checks on their way into school.

"The key to supporting students is having school in person," Hickam told the school board on Thursday. To that end, schools will continue to enforce good hygiene (lots of hand-washing), good ventilation in the buildings and social distancing, which in schools has dropped from six feet to three feet.

"A big success for us last year was the cooperation of our families -- if a student was sick they stayed home," Hickam added, saying he hopes for the same vigilance in the upcoming year.

When a case of COVID is found, "we will follow up with deeper cleaning and disinfection of that area," he added.

District 300 will treat vaccinated and unvaccinated students differently only when a case of COVID-19 is discovered, Hickam said. Unvaccinated students who come in contact with a COVID-positive person will have to isolate at home and remote learn during the quarantine period, while vaccinated students will be allowed to remain in school.

Other than in those cases, vaccinated and unvaccinated students will not be treated differently, Hickam said. While the Centers for Disease Control has ruled that vaccinated students do not have to be socially distant at lunch, District 300 will socially distance all students in the cafeteria, regardless of vaccination status.

As well, if Du Quoin -- currently in a low transmission stage for COVID -- begins to have more cases and rises to a "moderate," "substantial" or even "high" transmission level, all students will be required to wear masks, not just the unvaccinated ones, Hickam said.

From the audience, however, Jerrad Luthy said that "segregating" students by vaccination status "will not be a really good situation." During the meeting the school board held a public hearing on the back to school plan, inviting audience comment.

"I think most of the parents in the district are thinking the same way I'm thinking and they probably aren't going to (have their kids) be vaccinated," Luthy said, as other members of the audience nodded in agreement. "Treating kids as fair as you can treat them is extremely important, especially in a small town.

"I just want to make sure it's handled on the local level with our board. It's going to be extremely important for you guys (the board) to make solid decisions in that department," he added. "There are a lot of parents listening, a lot of parents who are going to be involved because they care about their kids."

Board member Trent Waller responded, saying he and probably other members of the school board "feel the same way" and understood what Luthy was saying. "We're a good board and we'll do the right thing," he said. "I can ease all your minds right now, we're going to do what's best for the kids and the families."

After the meeting, Waller clarified his statement. "Basically, I just wanted him (Luthy) to know this group of people I work with on this board will work to do the right thing," whether in the end the board agrees with Luthy or not, he said. "We have faith in the administration, and Mr. Hickam is going to stay on top of all the guidelines."

During the meeting, Hickam said the school board could decide to quarantine all students who are exposed to COVID-19, whether they are vaccinated or not.

No board member made that motion on Thursday, and on Monday Hickam said barring any groundswell of support for that idea from his staff or the public in the next couple of weeks, the district will continue with the plan of quarantining unvaccinated students while vaccinated students remain in school.

Again, the goal is to keep as many students in-person as possible, he said. Nationwide data from 2020-21 is clear that students perform much better academically -- and socially and emotionally -- when they are in-person.

Remote learning will not be an option for District 300 families in 2021-22, excepting students being temporarily quarantined and those who can show a medical need. Hickam said eliminating remote learning as an option for families is not only best for students, it is best for staff, too.

"I promised our faculty last year that I wanted to take some of that burden off of them for this coming school year," he said. "Trying to balance remote learners and in-person learners is a difficult juggling act."

If family wants full time remote learning there will have to be a medical reason for that, involving documentation from a physician, he added.

Hickam said he sympathizes with parents who are reluctant to vaccinate their children.

"I totally understand some parents' reservations," he said. Schools have not been hotbeds of COVID activity and most children who are infected do not have as severe cases.

"But part of our concern is not just about the spread of virus at school," he said, "it's if we have a student who is positive they are taking that home to people who may be more at risk than they are."

Hickam said the Perry County Health Department will not provide District 300 with names of vaccinated students. The only way the district will know who is vaccinated is through parents who volunteer the information.

Parents are not required to tell District 300 if their children are vaccinated, and it will only come up when a positive case of COVID is in the schools, and the district has to determine who must be quarantined and who can remain in school, Hickam said.

Parents who volunteer that information ahead of time will just be ahead of the game if a COVID case comes up, he added. Parents claiming their child is vaccinated will need to show documentation.

Hickam said District 300 might be able to make an educated guess as to how many students are vaccinated, based on data from the CDC that is Perry County-specific. But even that data doesn't drill down specifically to Du Quoin, he said.

Vaccinations are currently available for students ages 12 to 17.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Biden, said in May that he expects vaccines to become available to children as young as 4 by the end of 2021 or early in 2022.

Hickam said because of uncertainties involving the Delta variant, and other potential variants, his back-to-school plan could be transient.

"Probably at some point we'll have people upset with our approach," Hickam said. "People have strong opinions about masks, and as we're in a low transmission phase we don't need to apply a big Band-Aid approach. But if we get into a higher phase, we may decide to require masks.

"It's hard for me to make an argument that masks weren't part of our success (in 2020-21, when only one student contracted coronavirus at school)," he added. "Aside from COVID, we had a lot less illness in general -- not as much flu or strep throat, which usually run through our schools."

Q&A

Members of the audience asked pertinent questions during the public hearing. They are Brenda Green, Stacey Jones, Erica Loos, Jerrad Luthy and Heather Waller.

Q. What about antibodies?

A. CDC guidelines don't speak to that. But last year the rules said if a student was within 90 days of coming back to school after having contracted COVID, antibodies could be assumed to be present. Unless the IDPH changes or modifies that ruling, it will still be in force.

Q. Will the Perry County Health Department provide names of students with COVID and isn't that breaking privacy rules?

A. They will not provide names and we don't need them. We need information on where the cases are coming from to determine how we should respond.

Q. If we go to "moderate" or "substantial" level of COVID cases, who will have to wear masks in school?

A. Everyone.

Q. For how long?

A. Two week periods.

Q. On school buses and sports buses they'll have to wear masks, but what about when they are playing sports?

A. That's to be determined -- we're waiting on the Illinois High School Association and the Illinois Department of Public Health. Whatever they put out is what we'll do.

Q. Will kids on remote learning get full credit, and will they be considered on an excused absence?

A. They'll get full credit. Last year remote learners were considered present, but of course, we had bigger groups of remote learners at that time. Whether they will be considered absent or present is something we still need to figure out.

Q. Will the local health department be providing recommendations or guidance?

A. I would call it guidance.

Q. Are we going back to hot meals?

A. We are looking at going back to hot meals, yes.

Q. I'm worried about kids re-breathing the air trapped in their masks. Last year, my daughter came home with a headache every day.

A. We hadn't heard that. Right now the ventilation system is programmed by the architectural standards set for schools. But if they want us to turn (the air) over more often it's a simple adjustment.

Q. Are we making students get tested for COVID to come back to school if they are out with a cold?

We can't make anybody get tested. Last year, you could get out of quarantine faster with a negative COVID test. Right now, those rules are still the same.

Q. How are you guys going to know which kids have been vaccinated and which haven't?

Since vaccination information is voluntarily, we will invite families to share that info with us, with the understanding that the reason we are asking for it is because of contact tracing.

Q. Our kids are scared to tell us if they have a headache because they don't want to be out of school and they don't want to get tested. That's scary on so many levels -- they don't want to be honest with us about how they feel.