By CRISTINA JANNEY
The Hays USD 489 school board approved a modified COVID-19 mitigation plan at its meeting Monday that will allow some students who are in quarantine to return to school if they wear masks and remain symptom-free.
As of Friday, the district had 22 positive cases with another 60 students in quarantine because of close contacts.
Superintendent Ron Wilson said a large percentage of students in quarantine Monday were eligible to come back to school Tuesday under the amended policy.
He said the policy has been amended from the guidelines released prior to Labor Day.
"This is about reducing quarantining," Wilson said.
Jason Kennedy, Ellis County public health officer, met with the Ellis County school advisory committee on COVID, and he said this compromise will keep more children in school.
The school district is not offering remote learning this school year. Board member Craig Pallister, a former educator, said students who are out of school will likely fall behind.
"I know the people in Hays want to keep our kids in school," he said. "One way we can do that is get vaccinations in the community. The other is do the mitigation like Ron [Wilson] was saying."
The new tiered plan would be re-evaluated every week by the school COVID advisory group. If positive cases decline, a district could move to a less restrictive rung on the mitigation ladder.
"We would love to stay with the least restrictive plan, but it's probably not going to work," Wilson said. "That's based on numbers and visiting with health experts."
The revised policy also sets a benchmark of 35 positive students or staff members as the point masks would be required districtwide. That benchmark was chosen because 35 is about 1 percent of all students and staff occupying the district's buildings.
Students or staff who are vaccinated and are close contacts would not have to wear masks or quarantine as long as the district's positive COVID rate remains less than 35, Wilson said.
At 50 or more cases, the district would require masks and a 10-day quarantine for all close contacts with the option to test out after five days.
The top rung of the ladder would require masks and a 10-day quarantine for close contacts with no test-out option.
If the district's number of positive cases drops below a benchmark for two weeks, the district would return to a lower mitigation rung on the ladder.
Please see the end of this story for the complete policy.
Board President Tammy Wellbrock noted the quarantine and isolation orders from the public health officer trump any decisions by a local school board. By introducing masks as a mitigation measure, Kennedy agreed to relax quarantine guidelines.
Last school year, USD 489 had no transmission attributed to contact within schools. However, within the first two weeks of this school year, there was spread in the schools, Kennedy said.
He said this could be attributed to many factors, including the prevalence of the delta variant in the community.
"I don't want to quarantine healthy kids," Kennedy said. "I don't want these kids at home. I don't want nurses and doctors sitting at home watching their healthy kids not get an education while we need them somewhere else to treat patients.
"There is no level of safety with COVID. ... What I can tell you is that we did our best to make it as safe as possible, and this plan is a continuation of that — to limit impacts to our community and to limit impacts to our children."
Wellbrock said all data supports children are better off from mental, emotional, physical, safety and educational standpoints if they are being educated in school buildings.
"When we rolled out the first COVID guidelines, that has been our goal is to be in the schools," Wellbrock said. "I think it's important to share that we are doing what's best for all people.
"We represent all parents — both pro- and anti-mask parents — and we represent the children who aren't fed at home. We represent the children who are abused at home. We represent the children who don't have a regular place to stay.
"We are doing our best for all these parties, including the employees and the staff."
Wellbrock also urged employers to be more lenient when parents need to be home with a sick child because parents have been sending children to school sick with COVID.
"That should never happen," she said. "We should never put our school administrators, instructors and staff in that kind of position."
Board member Allen Park said he would prefer the mask policy be applied school by school and not to the district as a whole.
Wilson said there is so much co-mingling of people in the community, the COVID schools advisory group said they did not think a school-by-school policy would be effective for USD 489.
The new mitigation policy was adopted on a vote of 4-1, with Park voting against. Board member Lori Hertel was absent.