School district sets criteria for masking

Iola schools will enforce a mask mandate when 4% of students and staff at a building test positive for COVID-19. The district also will start posting information on its website about positive cases and quarantine numbers.

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September 3, 2021 - 5:20 PM

Photo by Celia Llopis Jepsen / Kansas News Service / kcur.org

Iola schools will enforce a mask mandate when 4% of the students and staff at a building test positive for COVID-19. 

School board members met in a special meeting Friday afternoon to discuss COVID criteria, as cases in the county and region remain elevated because of the highly contagious delta variant.

Board members wanted to figure out at what point they would require masks, as districts across the state and nation debate what has become a contentious issue. At the past two meetings, parents, educators and advocates both for and against masks presented emotional testimony.

Friday’s decision was intended as a sort of middle ground to reassure families the district takes the issue seriously. Indeed, it was unanimously approved, after other recent proposals for and against mask mandates failed on split votes.

The board also agreed to make information about COVID cases and protocols available to the public on the district’s website. The information will also be provided by The Register.

THE NEW mask mandate will kick in when a building reports 4% of its total population — student and faculty — test positive for COVID-19. 

The mandate will be reviewed every two weeks and remain in place until the numbers drop to 2% or lower. 

Currently, there are no active cases in the district. There have been only a few positive COVID cases since the start of the school year, and not enough that would have triggered the mandate under the new policy.

Still, it would take a small number of cases at each building for the mandate to kick in.

Here’s a breakdown of how many cases it would take to trigger the mandate, or 4% of students and staff:

• McKinley, 8

• Jefferson, 7

• Lincoln, 7

• Iola Middle School, 15

• Iola High School, 15

The mandate would apply only to the affected building. 

The board modeled the policy after one in Neosho, Mo., and after consulting other districts. The Missouri district set the threshold at 7% but school board President Dan Willis said he thought that was too high. He suggested somewhere between 3 and 5, and board members agreed to compromise at 4%.

THE BOARD also agreed to make certain information public, to provide more transparency and details for parents and others.

The district’s website will begin posting information about COVID cases and quarantines at each building. That includes the number of positive cases in a building, the number of students in quarantine and the number of staff in quarantine.

That information will be posted on Tuesdays and Fridays.

It does not contain any identifiable personal information, only building-level numbers.

The website also will offer a flowchart that breaks down the district’s new testing policy, approved at the Aug. 30 meeting. 

Under the policy, students who have been exposed to COVID-19 or are a close contact of someone with the illness can remain in school if they agree to be tested on the first day of notification, the third day and the fifth day. The students can remain in school as long as the tests come back negative.

A school nurse, contracted by Community Health Centers of Southeast Kansas, will conduct the test. The district also will accept results from tests conducted by a healthcare professional.

The tests are provided by the state as part of a federal grant. Results are available within 15 minutes.

They are conducted with a nasal swab. Because the delta variant is much more contagious than the original coronavirus, the tests are less invasive in that they do not need to go very high into the nasal cavity. 

The district began offering the new testing policy this week, and has tested six students so far, allowing them to remain in class. The district has quarantined 29 students and three staff members as of Friday. Any students or staff who are not vaccinated and have a close contact with a positive case but refuse to get tested, are placed in quarantine. 

The board highlighted a point that was overlooked during the previous discussion: students who are not vaccinated but have close contact with an infected person must wear a mask until the testing protocol is completed. 

Any students or staff who have been vaccinated do not need to be tested or quarantined, even if they have a close contact with someone who tested positive.

The goal is to keep students in school if they are not ill, Fager said previously.

IN A related matter that didn’t get much traction, the board discussed whether to set criteria for an emergency closure if cases spike significantly.

In some districts across the state, such as Wellington, a COVID outbreak has forced a closure of schools. The Jayhawk-Linn district recently closed schools for one day for deep cleaning after 90 student athletes were exposed.

Board members decided Fager has enough authority to decide appropriate measures in case of an emergency such as an outbreak, and no new policy was needed. 

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