The Washington school board hopes students will be spending less time in quarantine after board members decided to start using a test-out modified quarantine in a special meeting Monday night.
Previously, if an unvaccinated student who hadn’t had COVID-19 in 90 days was exposed to someone who tested positive for COVID-19 and who wasn’t wearing a mask, that student would have had to quarantine for at least 10 days before returning to school. After the unanimous decision, which goes into effect next Monday, with a negative test on days five, six or seven in quarantine, the student could return to school on their eighth day of quarantine.
Washington is the last school district in Franklin County to adopt the modified quarantine. Members balked in their February meeting to approve the alternate guidelines because of the extra burden it would place on nurses to keep track of how many days each student would be out, as well as the negative tests. As of Friday at 4:30 p.m., the district had 259 students in quarantine.
After district superintendent Dr. Jennifer Kephart shared data from the state, the county and the district, the board discussed the numbers and approved the test-out modification to its quarantine guidelines. Jason Oesterly tried to amend the motion to include mandatory masking for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, but the amendment failed 4-3 with Dan Leslie, Kevin Blackburn, John Freitag and Susan Thatcher voting it down. Scott Byrne and Matt Wilson joined Oesterly.
Brittany Ash, a nurse at Four Rivers Career Center, was in attendance to give the board a perspective from the health care staff within the district’s buildings. She said the pandemic has been incredibly taxing on school nurses, both mentally and physically, as they have to work long hours to contact trace exposures, test students and call parents and guardians to inform them that their child was exposed to the virus. Nurses are also in constant communication with the Franklin County Health Department to share data and other information regarding the coronavirus in schools. Ash said the Tuesday after Labor Day was especially hard on the staff because of the number of exposures that occurred over the long weekend.
“So the problem comes down to how much goes into it all,” she said. “It’s another piece of the puzzle being added to it. When you add the test-out option, it just adds more chaos to it.”
Ash said that although the workload is already high, the goal of getting students back in school and learning in person is so important that the nursing staff would accept the extra burden that goes with the test-out modifications.
The board discussed different ways to help support its nursing staff, including using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to hire more staff or increase the hours of existing staff to pick up some duties. No decision was made Monday night, but after the meeting, Kephart said she’ll be working with assistant superintendent Dr. Rachael Franssen to determine how best to address that need.
“So we will have additional help, whether it be from some of our substitute nursing staff, if we can, or we will have additional staff, at least for the short term, to see if that is something that we’ll need for a couple of weeks, a couple of months, six months, what that might look like,” Kephart said.
In addition to the test-out modified quarantine, the board modified its color-coded masking guidelines. From now on, if a building in the district has between 18 and 25 percent of its students out in quarantine, the building will automatically adopt a mask policy for everyone on that campus for 14 days. The provision, which passed 5-2 with Blackburn and Leslie dissenting, is meant to further reduce burden on nurses if a building becomes a hot spot. It also goes into effect at the beginning of next week. Masking would reduce the number of students required by the state to quarantine because if a student tests positive and is wearing a mask, then the students who were exposed would not have to quarantine if they were also masked.
Kephart said that two elementary schools had close to 18 percent of students in quarantine, but several classrooms would be returning in the coming days.
Moving forward, Kephart will also study a policy that school districts in Jefferson County are trying in which a student who is exposed to COVID-19 is still allowed to come to school with a mask.