CAMDEN — The Preble Shawnee Board of Education met in special session on Monday, Oct. 4, to discuss the options available to them for mitigating the current high COVID infection and quarantine numbers in the district and potentially vote on a masking policy.
By Tuesday, Oct. 5, families were advised the school would be switching to remote learning for Wednesday and Thursday, Oct. 5-6, and that there was no mask mandate in place following a decision by the administration.
Superintendent Todd Bowling began his presentation during the meeting by explaining why the special meeting was called and sharing some background data.
“I want to make sure that everyone is aware that tonight is to address and have a discussion about what alternatives exist for our school district,” he said. “There is no preconceived determination being made. When I accepted this job, just like I have the last 34 years in education, my number one priority is our kids. It is making sure that every kid gets an education, and it is making sure that every kid is provided a safe environment in which they may learn, and it has been in full understanding in my 35 years of education that not every kid has the same support mechanisms and systems at home. While it is okay for some kids to learn at home from a computer, it is not okay for some others because of the inequities that exist for some students.
“And I know that there are some opinions on this that are very straightforward one way or the other,” he continued. “This is not to argue with you. This is not to say your opinion is wrong, this is not to say your opinion is right, but this is to present information to the board and to you as the public so we can make informed decisions on what is really the best for our students and our staff at Preble Shawnee, which is the most important thing to me.
“It’s pretty alarming to me,” Bowling said of the district’s current COVID data. “It may not be to you. But considering this time last year we had zero cases of COVID for our kids. Last year, COVID did not affect kids. The new strains that are out this time affect kids, big time. Not in a way that is, knock on wood, causing deaths, or putting them in emergency room — although they are in emergency rooms across Ohio, and in the US — but it’s affecting them. Eighty-nine of our kids have tested positive for COVID. Twenty at our elementary school, 29 in our middle school, 31 at our high school, and nine staff.”
As of Oct. 4, according to Bowling, there were four active cases at Preble Shawnee Elementary, 12 in the middle school, four at the high school and two staff members. The district is averaging 110-150 quarantines weekly, he noted, which is about 10 percent of the student population, by the time students who go to Miami Valley Career Technology Center and other programs are subtracted.
According to Bowling, 21 percent of the student population at Preble Shawnee has missed school. “And you might say, ‘So what, that’s a typical flu season.’ And I might say, ‘No, that’s more than a typical flu season,’ because in my 35 years, when the flu season is anything over 10 to 15 percent, we start sounding alarms and you start looking at making adjustments because that’s a high number with the flu.”
According to Bowling, school nurses have found that 90 percent of the 89 cases of COVID-19 have been traced back to being transmitted at school.
Bowling also shared data on masks and noted, “It’s not about political views. It’s about how do we keep our kids in school, period, end of story.”
“Wearing masks will stop students from being quarantined. Vaccinations will stop students from being quarantined,” he said.
“Right now, there is no approved vaccination for [ages] five to 12, so you can talk about those kids, and only 43 percent of our ages of 12 to 18 are vaccinated in the county, but the problem with that is, it has not changed since July. That’s the same percentage we ran in July. So, nobody else is going to get vaccinated, yet Pfizer was approved and Moderna was approved. But nobody else is getting it. So people have made their decision and I don’t fault anybody for that decision. That’s your personal choice and that’s not something we’re going to manage.
“This is about keeping our kids in school,” he said. “So, we’re asking for 6.5 hours out of 24 hours in a day — if we even asked for masks. That is why we would ask for masks. The other 17 ½ hours of the day, the kids can do whatever they want.
“This is about meeting the needs of both sides of our parents, those who want masks and those who don’t want masks, and providing a safe environment for kids to learn. A temporary mask mandate will slow the spread, reduce quarantines. And getting us back to our old numbers would be the goal of a temporary mask mandate.”
According to Bowling a temporary mask mandate at school would give the district real data. He noted, any such mask mandate would not be enforced on students with medical reasons, like asthma, which prevent them from wearing one.
“What the mask policy does, it gives us flexibility to implement when we need to protect our students’ health and make sure they stay in school,” he said.
Protecting teachers is also key, according to Bowling. “If we don’t protect our teachers, our most valued resource — remember we’re in the business of hiring people, 85 percent of our money that we pay out goes to adults to educate your children. If we don’t protect them, and we don’t have teachers to teachers, the we have empty classrooms and buildings because we don’t have teachers. And if we don’t protect them, then we can’t run classes. That’s why we’re having this discussion,” Bowling said.
The district has lost over 100 students to homeschooling because the families do not want their children in COVID-19 environments, he said. “Well, think about if we didn’t have COVID. And you get those 100 kids back — that’s $6,000 a kid. That’s a lot of money for Preble Shawnee. That means we don’t have to ask for levies, that means we can do more things for our kids.”
“This is not the politics of what we believe. We’re not trying to take away your political freedom or your safeguards. Masks do not protect anybody 100 percent. I’m the first one that will tell you that the numbers are probably even lower. But to play the game, and to keep them in school, masks is 100 percent.”
Bowling said 384 people responded to a survey he sent out asking that, “if you knew that if kids wore a mask they would not have to quarantine, would you be in favor of a mask?” According to Bowling, 44 percent said ‘yes,’ 37 percent said ‘no’ and 18 percent said, ‘maybe.’
He brought three recommendations for the board: a temporary mask policy for the next three weeks because COVID numbers are so high in the school; remote learning days the following Wednesday and Thursday; or allowing students to come back to school if they wear masks for 14 days and remain asymptomatic.
The special meeting lasted for approximately two hours, with input from several of those in attendance.
“I appreciate you going through all those options that so we can talk about them,” Board President Julie Singleton told Bowling. “I also appreciate you always staying ethical on what we’re doing. I 100 percent agree that while we may not always agree with all of the health department guidelines, those are the guidelines, handed to us.”
Preble Shawnee school nurse Lori Cottingim spoke about the COVID infection rate at Preble Shawnee noting that through Oct. 4, the district has had more cases this year than all of last school year. She questioned the case numbers being reported at other schools in the area.
“I can’t speak to the COVID numbers provided by other school districts, but having full knowledge of our COVID positive numbers, I wonder about some of the low COVID numbers reported in other schools in this region of our state,” Cottingim said. “There are no invisible barriers to contain COVID infections to only the boundaries of our small school district. And I know that at Preble Shawnee, our COVID numbers are growing.”
She continued, “Our COVID infection rates last year showed that even when used in less than perfect way, we did not spread COVID the way we are this year. Masks, last year, reduced transmission of COVID and other illnesses too, and our students thrived when they were in school, even with masks on.
“We can reduce COVID transmission through the reasonable common sense-application of masks, keep our kids healthy and preserve in-person learning.”
Several parents provided input on their feelings about masks, mandates, quarantines, and remote learning. An ordained minister in attendance offered to sign religious exemption papers for families. Parents cited studies regarding the safety of the masks and how dirty they become by the end of the school days. Teachers spoke of their frustration with everything from masks to ever-changing COVID regulations.
Students were to return to school on Tuesday, Oct. 12, following a fall break from Friday, Oct. 8-Monday, Oct. 11.
Reach Eddie Mowen Jr. at 937-683-4061 and follow on Twitter @emowenjr