CAMDEN – Masks, no masks, or partial masking? That’s the question school officials find themselves having to answer in light of rising COVID-19 infection rates. Preble Shawnee Local Schools Superintendent Todd Bowling presented the results of a recent COVID-related survey of parents and staff during a Thursday, Sept. 9, meeting of the Preble Shawnee Board of Education in an effort to give the board information necessary to make an informed decision.
According to Bowling, the district is “starting to see COVID pop up in the form of positive cases, but more so in terms of kids being quarantined.”
Bowling said he wanted to get the information out to the parents in terms of the survey, “because if the board needs to make a decision, I wanted you to be well informed of what you base your decision on based on my recommendation to you,” he told board members.
“So, if we have to make a recommendation on what I feel we need to move to for the best safety of our students and staff, I wanted you to be well-versed on what the statistics and what the data shows. I thought the best way to start that would be a survey,” he added.
He continued, “The first thing we asked our parents, and right now we’ve got 376 responses out of about 850 emails, is, ‘Would you be in favor of students wearing masks to school?’ So, 46 percent said ‘no,’ 36 percent said ‘yes.’ To me, that was kind of good news, because I have heard that Preble County did not want to have any masks whatsoever, and it’s not quite all that way. I think that ‘maybe’ depends on, they want to know more information, what occurs if we do have to wear masks. So, in other words, what’s our positive cases and what does that mean for my student? Does it provide more safety and more protection?”
Bowling’s report continued, “The next question we asked is, ‘Would you be in favor of students wearing masks to school, knowing that if the student had a mask on, they would not have to be quarantined?’ That changed the results. Now 44 percent of the parents said yes, they would be in favor of the masks. 37 percent said no. And if that 18 percent is saying ‘maybe,’ that number could be as high as 55 percent or more.
“So, knowing that their kid would not have to miss any more school is important,” Bowling said.
According to Bowling, staff response to the survey question, “Would you be in favor of requiring mass for staff?” had 54 percent saying “no” and 45 percent saying “yes.”
“Remember, that we’re at about 70 percent of our staff being vaccinated,” Bowling told board members. “If you look at what the current rule for quarantining is if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to quarantine. This does not surprise me at all to have these responses. I kind of tried to word this one, and it’s almost like some people would say, ‘Well Todd, you’re trying to talk them into their response,’ but it’s just getting folks to understand, ‘Would you be in favor of requiring masks for staff that are unvaccinated?’ We cannot require vaccination, first of all, and then you’re kind of tied because we can’t say who’s vaccinated. We can ask them to have scouts’ honor, and be honest about who’s vaccinated, but in a way, you would single out who is, and who is not, vaccinated. So, that did not change much, they did not want to do that. And I don’t blame them,” Bowling said of the survey question’s results.
School staff members were also asked if their area of work was being cleaned efficiently each day. According to Bowling, 50 percent said “yes,” 25 percent said “no,” and 25 percent said, “maybe.”
Bowling explained, along with putting another custodian in place, the district has purchased two fogger machines which can go into a room, “spray it down in five minutes, and within 15 minutes every area in the room is completely clean. We will also use this for our buses,” he added.
“We have little or no issues on our buses,” he continued. “We can go in our buses spray them around in there and in three minutes, the entire bus is clean, “We can go to our rooms at the end of the day, we can track our kids who we know are COVID positive, we can pull their schedule and when everybody’s out, so we don’t identify who that kid is, we go spray each room at night, and we take care of that situation. We also use chemicals that last 24 hours, so we know when we’re cleaning a room, for 24 hours that chemical is cleaning any room.”
There are also wipes available in the classrooms for students to wipe down their own desks if they wish, and the district is working on getting more hand sanitizers in hallways and in classrooms.
Bowling said he met with Preble County Health Commissioner Erik Balster the previous week. “There were 195 new cases last week, 16 percent positivity rate in Preble County. On the seven-day case average, that’s 476 per 100,000 — compare that to what was the worst average last year — it was about 790. He was pretty clear, if you mask you don’t quarantine, if you’re vaccinated, you don’t quarantine,” Bowling said.
“The problem is they’re not getting letters out to tell who is in quarantine. We had several kids who needed to quarantine, and they didn’t find out they needed to quarantine until the 10 days were up. They can’t keep up with it. The company that the state hired and said schools no longer have to do it, up and quit last Friday. So now it’s back on the schools and the Preble County Health Department, to take care of it.”
Bowling said the district told Balster Preble Shawnee would partner with Preble County Public Health.
“We are going to work on notifying the parents ourselves. We’re going to call them. We’re going to hand them a letter,” Bowling said. “And we haven’t been perfect, and I will be the first one to admit when we make mistakes. We were a little late getting to a student in one of our classes, and so that student had access to an 87-year-old grandmother and a 78-year-old uncle, and that’s not a good thing.”
He continued, “Luckily, the girl who was quarantined never tested positive, but the health department didn’t notify them, and we didn’t know that wasn’t happening very quickly. So now we’re going to take it upon ourselves to make sure we tell them, because that’s the only surefire way to do that. But to do that, that takes bodies. Somebody has to go to the classroom and check to see who’s in close contact, make the phone call and send the letter. So that’s where we are with contact tracing — no help — it’s either do it yourself or it doesn’t happen.”
Updated COVID information is posted on the school district’s website, according to Bowling, who said the school had 19 positive cases in August and his most recent update on Sept. 9 had the district’s total increased to 28.
“And that’s the way we’ll track it to let folks know where we are on a positive cases,” he reported. “We currently have over 150 quarantines between our three schools: Preble Shawnee Elementary, Preble Shawnee Middle School, Preble Shawnee High School. That’s over 10 percent of our population. That’s a high number. I don’t know if you got that high at any time last year at Preble Shawnee.”
“Students for a second year in a row are missing 10 or more days of school,” Bowling continued. “That is horrible. We missed a lot more than 10 days of school last year. Now for them to miss another 10 days, to be at home, without an instructor in front of them, which is the most important part of their education, is not acceptable.”
“There are only two ways to avoid a quarantine: wear a mask or be vaccinated,” Bowling reminded the board. “The problem is, in Preble County only 43 percent of 12-to-18 year-olds are vaccinated. And as of yet, there is no FDA-approved vaccine for six- to 12- year-olds. Masks and vaccines are not stopping students and adults from getting COVID. There are a lot of vaccinated folks who are getting COVID. Not at a high rate. It is slowing the variant down and it’s not having as severe effects on you, but people are still getting it.”
Bowling said the school’s goals this year amid the pandemic “are pretty clear. Our number one goal is to stay open. Avoid remote learning, as we want our students in person for all learning, plus the State of Ohio will not allow students doing remote learning — they took that option away. Provide in person learning in a safe environment. Limit quarantines and keep kids at school, prevent school closures due to spread and protect staff so students can be transported to school, receive food daily and receive in-person instruction.”
“So, what are our choices as a school district?” Bowling continued. “We can wait and see what happens, just let it keep spreading locally in our school and in our county. We could move to a partial mask requirement.”
What does a partial mask requirement mean? “Once you get out of your car, you put your mask on as you enter the doorway. As you walk down the hall, and you go into your class, and you sit at your desk and take your mask off because their desk are three feet apart. So, once you’re at your desk, you take your mask off, you can learn.”
The masks would stay on for any traveling inside the building, be removed while eating lunch, and while outside for recess.
“The other thing you do is a full-blown mask policy, or you’re vaccinated,” Bowling said of a second option. “You tell the kids, ‘either you’re vaccinated and you prove it by bringing your card in, or you wear a mask.’
“Full mask policy for everyone is your other choice, but the only way to avoid quarantines is if you’re vaccinated or wearing a mask. So if our kids are in a mask or vaccinated, it does not matter if you’re next to a COVID positive.
“If we go full mask, Bowling continued, “Let’s think about our teams. So our soccer team or volleyball team or football team has been busting their bottoms since August one. We’re having great seasons. Say we don’t go to that (full mask). And then it comes to playoff week and 10 kids are put out because of close contact. You could solve it by the football coach — and I recommended it to all our coaches, whether you agree with me or not — I told them they had permission to require their teams to wear masks in school. They’ve worked too hard for this. Is it not disciplined enough to just wear a mask for six and a half hours while you’re here, or five and a half hours, to put a mask on for your team? Your commitment to your team is to compete. I mean, do you want to jeopardize that because somebody has established a rule that if you don’t have a mask on you quarantine? You can’t play. You’ve worked too hard for that. But that’s the decision we’ve got to make for our kids and in school.”
“You’re either for this, or you hate this — there is no middle ground,” Bowling added. “We know that.” He told board members, in case they wanted to know what feedback he’d been getting, “I’ve had two emails,” he said. “Two strongly against it. Two strongly for it. There’s no in-between.”
“We’re not politicians,” Bowling said. “We are in the business of kids. I think all of you ran for the board because you want to make a difference for kids. I’m in education because I want to make a difference for kids. We’re here to grow them academically, emotionally, socially and intellectually, and we can’t do that if they’re not in school.”
Bowling said the district was going to have to make a decision on what is the best practice for kids’ safety and health. “People sometimes forget we didn’t ask for this. We’re in the worst pandemic we’ve seen in the last 100 years. However, our job is to keep kids in school, and right now we’re able to do that to an extent, but 12 percent of our kids are not in school, because they’re quarantined. So that becomes a problem.”
“Over the next couple of days and weeks, data will show trends for our country and our schools,” Bowling said. “We may be able to stay the same and we may need to make a significant change quickly.”
“Currently, just so you know, no school in Preble County has moved to a mask policy,” Bowling told the board. “But all are strongly encouraging the masks to be worn. One nearby in our county has over 50 positives and is looking strongly at closing or requiring masks. Homecoming here, and in two other districts is being moved outside. If it does rain that night, we will move inside and require masks, because we are allowing guests.”
“The survey was all over the place,” Bowling concluded. Our parents and staff had well thought-out responses. It was, ‘I don’t want them to quarantine, I want them to be at school,’ ‘I would be open minded to masks,’ but also ‘My kid has asthma and breathing issues and that’s not best.’ Other comments were like, ‘I don’t want the government deciding what happens to my kid.’
“Our decision is what do we do to keep kids in school. That’s all I want. I don’t want to put a mask on anybody either, but I don’t want my kids at home. I want them here. I don’t want that football team missing 15 kids on Friday night. It’s going to kill me if 15 go out on quarantine tomorrow because we had no masks. I’m going take that personally and blame myself. But I still don’t want to require masks, so it’s that in-between line,” Bowling said.
When questioned, Bowling said if the district was operating under a partial masking policy, 140 of the 150 students in quarantine would not be in quarantine and would be in class.
Partial masking could be an issue in more crowded classrooms where the students cannot be seated at least three feet from each other, according to officials.
“It’s not a solve-all, but it’s kind of a medium ground to get the public to not attack us altogether,” Bowling said of the partial masking policy. “I don’t know if that’s the right answer. Maybe it’s ‘just go to masks.’ We’re not there yet but we’re getting close.”
No action was taken on masking policies. District officials are waiting to see what’s next as it relates to COVID trends and recently announced federal mandates.