The Jackson County Board of Education has a difficult job on their hands. We’re just about a month away from schools reopening and school districts are still weighing the decision about masks in classrooms. The CDC recommends the return to in-person learning, but with protocols in place. When it comes to masks, the CDC says vaccinated teachers and students don’t need them. However, the CDC says those who aren’t fully vaccinated though should wear masks, but the ultimate decision about any mask requirements will be up to individual school districts.
The Kentucky Department of Education is urging school districts to follow the latest school guidance by the CDC. However, the decision is being left to the local districts instead of being mandated by the state.
“What we’re likely to see is local decision making around what mitigation strategies they’ll have in place and what layers and protections will have in place to keep schools from becoming transmission points for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jason Glass, Kentucky Department of Education.
This week the Jackson County BOE reviewed the “Re-Opening Plan” for the Jackson County Public Schools. The decision of how to deal with COVID-19 protocols has factors that pull decision-makers in opposing directions. The pandemic seems to be waning with available vaccinations on the rise, nobody likes COVID restrictions, no one enjoys wearing a mask, politically we are all tired of the fight. However, there is a new Delta Variant of the virus that infects younger people easier and is deadlier than the original strain, positive cases are on the increase, most people getting sick from COVID along with most COVID patients being hospitalized are those that are unvaccinated (97%). Just this Monday the Cumberland Valley Health District posted that Jackson County has 8 confirmed positive cases while our next-door neighbor, Clay County, has 42 confirmed positive cases. Jackson County has relatively few people vaccinated (especially our school age student population).
The majority of the population in Jackson County is still vulnerable because of vaccine hesitancy and the resistance to getting the shot(s). Jackson County ranks in the bottom 5 counties in the entire state regarding vaccine rate. Among Kentucky’s 120 counties, 31 have one-third or fewer of their residents vaccinated, and only have reached a solid 50%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Data Tracker. The bottom five counties are Spencer (22.6%), Christian (25.4%), Jackson (26.1%), Ballard (26.2%) and Lewis (26.2 %).
Meanwhile, students who are eligible to get the vaccine are staying away in droves. The state Department for Public Health reports that 85,610 youth aged 12 to 17 have received at least one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the only one approved for those 12 to 15. U.S. Census Bureau says that number is about 25 percent of the 12-17 age group in Kentucky. The Kids Count Data Center, says there were 341,365 children 12 to 17 in the state in 2019.
COVID-19 is still with us no matter how hard we want to “wish it away.” It is not an enviable task to sort these factors out and make decisions, particularly since the consequences could be dire. Where should our school administrators look for their guidance?
The Kentucky Department for Public Health has released new guidance on ways schools can help slow the spread of COVID-19 as the 2021-2022 school year begins, based on the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to DPH officials, “This guidance emphasizes the implementation of layered prevention strategies to protect individuals who are not fully vaccinated and is intended to help school administrators and local health officials select appropriate, layered prevention strategies in their communities. Decisions around the implementation of layered prevention strategies in the school community should be made collaboratively by local public health officials and school administrators.”
Last month, the Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) lifted its mandate on mask use and social distancing, while saying school districts may, at their discretion, continue to implement appropriate mitigation strategies that align with CDC guidance.
The KDE said on June 11 those who choose to wear a mask as a matter of personal preference or comfort should be allowed to continue to do so, adding the Kentucky Department for Public Health recommends, but does not require, that schools continue to follow CDC guidance.
The guidance released by the Kentucky Department for Public Health includes a series of steps local school districts should take when classes resume next month:
1) Promote and offer vaccination to help increase the proportion of students (12 years of age or older), teachers, staff and family members who are vaccinated,
2) Recommend masks for unvaccinated persons while indoors in all classroom and non-classroom settings, unless otherwise exempted (e.g., cannot wear a mask due to disability); in settings where most individuals are unvaccinated (e.g., classrooms with children less than 12 years old); when physical distancing is not possible or when other activities with an elevated risk of COVID-19 transmission (e.g., singing, shouting, blowing instruments) are occurring.
3) Require masks on public transportation, including buses operated by public and private school systems, for all persons two years of age or older unless otherwise exempted, in accordance with federal public health orders. A bus driver is not required to use a mask if he or she is the only person on the bus.
4) Physical distancing of at least 3 feet is recommended between K-12 students in classrooms where not everyone is fully vaccinated. Physical distancing of at least 6 feet is recommended between students and teachers/staff and between unvaccinated teachers/staff.
5) Implement screening testing for unvaccinated students, teachers and/or staff to help promptly identify and isolate cases and to guide the use of layered prevention strategies in the school. Screening testing can be considered for unvaccinated individuals participating in sports and other extracurricular activities.
6) Improve facility ventilation to the greatest extent possible to increase circulation of outdoor air and increase delivery of clean air. Utilize outdoor spaces, where possible.
7) Teach and reinforce handwashing with soap and water for 20 seconds or use of hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol. Ensure adequate supplies and opportunities for hand hygiene.
8) Sick students, teachers, or staff stay home if they are having fever and/or symptoms of COVID-19. Those who test positive for COVID-19 should self-isolate away from school for 10 days after the start of their illness (or testing date) or otherwise follow the direction of the local public health department about when it is safe for them to be around others. Also, direct sick persons to a health care provider to be tested and instruct them to isolate at home until they receive their test result.
9) Schools should work with the local health department to facilitate case investigation and contact tracing to identify individuals who have had close contact with a person diagnosed with COVID. Any unvaccinated students, teachers, or staff who are identified as close contacts should be instructed to self-quarantine regardless of whether the exposure occurred within or outside of the school setting. Fully vaccinated individuals do not need to quarantine if they are not symptomatic.
10) Improve facility cleaning to the greatest extent possible. In general, cleaning once a day is enough to sufficiently remove potential viruses that may be on surfaces. Consider cleaning high-touch, shared surfaces more frequently.
The Kentucky Department of Education (KDE) and DPH encourage school and district leaders to review the updated guidance documents and allow them to inform their decision-making. The Jackson County Sun will stay in close contact with JCPS Superintendent Mike Smith and will relay the decision(s) regarding the COVID-19 protocols that will be implemented during the upcoming school year as soon as the District’s Re-Opening Plan is approved.