After a rebuff from the Georgia Department of Public Health, the Bulloch County Board of Education on Thursday evening rescinded an Oct. 8 decision exempting students who wear masks from precautionary quarantines after “close contact” with someone with COVID-19.
Unlike the Oct. 8 vote, which was 8-0, the vote to rescind was 5-2, with Chairman Mike Sparks abstaining. The two board members who voted “no,” a nurse and an educator of teachers, indicated their reasons, and one member who voted “yes,” a public health dean, said the schools are stuck in a no-win situation.
Superintendent Charles Wilson stated his recommendation, “based on the information and feedback” received from the Georgia DPH, that the board rescind its previous action. District 8 board member Maurice Hill made the motion to rescind, and District 7 member Heather Mims seconded it.
The reversal leaves the school system where it was Oct. 7 in its approach to quarantines, Wilson acknowledged after the meeting.
“We will continue to provide guidance to our schools to implement the guidelines to the best of their discretion, as we have,” he said. “We’re going to continue to encourage the social distancing. I think everyone’s doing the best they can with it, but we’ll just continue to reiterate that so we can try to minimize quarantines.”
More than 1,000
From the start of school Aug. 17 through Thursday morning, 1,051 individual, 14-day precautionary home quarantines were ordered among Bulloch County Schools students and employees. The school system currently has 10,879 students enrolled, of whom 6,175 are attending in-person, while the rest are taking classes from home through the “virtual” option.
For students quarantined from face-to-face school, teachers attempt to provide “distance learning” assignments until they return.
Meanwhile, 115 people from the school system, including students and employees, have tested positive for or been diagnosed with COVID-19, also since Aug. 17. But relatively few of those cases appeared among people sent to quarantine. As of Oct. 1, when 896 individuals had been quarantined, 13 of them, or about 1.5%, had tested positive.
The fact that some students have been quarantined for two or three 14-day intervals, resulting in the loss of a month or more of in-person instruction and extracurricular activities, was a complaint voiced by several parents who addressed to the board Oct. 8.
At that time, parents presented a petition with more than 150 signatures asking the board to exempt high school students from quarantines if they were wearing a mask when exposed and showed no symptoms. Sparks suggested that this apply to students at all grade levels and serve as an incentive for mask-wearing, which the school system “strongly encourages” but does not require.
District 4 board member April Newkirk made it a motion – again, this was Oct. 8 – including a requirement that these students continue to wear a mask while at school. Her motion, seconded by District 1 member Cheri Wagner and unanimously approved, was also to go into effect immediately.
But Georgia DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey sent Sparks a letter Oct. 13 stating that the local board’s action was “out of compliance with guidance issued from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)” as well as her July 28 COVID-19 administrative order of behalf of the DPH.
She also cited a state law that makes it a misdemeanor offense to fail to comply with a Health Department order.
So Wilson immediately suspended further implementation of the local board’s action. He then sent Toomey a letter, dated Oct. 15, asking that she revise the DPH administrative order to make the mask exception proposed by Bulloch County Schools part of the statewide protocol for school quarantines.
But in her Oct. 19 reply, Toomey said that “DPH remains steadfast” in its commitment to CDC guidelines. The CDC, she noted, recommends that “close contacts of infected individuals quarantine for 14 days, regardless of whether or not they were wearing a mask.”
“Close contact” is defined as being within six feet of a person with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes in a day.
Wagner cites CDC
Wagner, a registered nurse who works in East Georgia Regional Medical Center’s emergency room, was the first board member to speak in Thursday’s renewed discussion. She had researched the CDC’s own information for school systems, as published on its website. One page at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus is entitled “The Importance of Reopening America’s Schools this Fall,” last updated July 23.
The CDC noted research indicating harmful effects to children’s social, emotional and behavioral wellbeing and academic performance from extended school closures, as Wagner cited.
“Further, the lack of in-person educational options disproportionately harms low-income and minority children and those living with disabilities,” is a direct quote from the CDC article.
Other information Wagner read from the CDC site supports the idea that “COVID-19 poses low risk to school-age children” and that young children are seldom the primary source of COVID-19 transmission within families.
“Scientific studies suggest … transmission among children in schools may be low,” Wagner said, again quoting or closely paraphrasing the CDC. “International studies that have assessed how readily COVID-19 spreads in schools also reveal low rates of transmission when community transmission is low. … (T)he rate of infection among younger school children and from students to teachers has been low.”
District 3 school board member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., dean of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, said he is aware that isolation has “an economic impact on the community and a personal impact on families.” He listed some negative consequences.
But the school board, he said, is in “a no-win situation,” attempting to respond to the community and balance safety in regard to COVID-19 with concerns for students’ social and emotional wellbeing and continued learning.
“Having said all that, let me say this, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health was crystal clear, there will be no yielding of the executive order, no refinement, and I think that that’s unfortunate because it has created a one-size-fits-all for every community,” Tedders said.
Then he added that he was not willing to “do battle” with the state over this.
“I don’t see how it benefits the Board of Education, the district or the children to actually just ignore what the commissioner and, by proxy, the governor have said,” Tedders said.
So, after asking that Wilson and his staff work with principals in each school to implement social distancing as far as possible and continue to encourage mask wearing, Tedders voted to rescind the Oct. 8 action. The two “no” votes came from Wagner and Newkirk, an instructor of elementary school teachers in Georgia Southern’s College of Education.
“Everything that I have read has talked about local control, and I will avoid getting on a soap box, but I will say that those of us that don’t believe in government control, this is what that is,” Newkirk said. “The DPH has overstepped, Dr. Toomey has overstepped in this, because local control is what the state Constitution talks about, it is our charter, it is about what we do.”
But she also appealed to the community for understanding, and said board members have seen or heard angry comments, even “malicious talk” on this subject. She sought to remind everyone, “Guys, we’re all neighbors … and we all have to get through this together.”
Sparks afterward said he abstained because Toomey’s letter was directed to him as chairman.
This turnabout regarding quarantines from face-to-face learning came as school officials, in both the Oct. 8 and Oct. 22 meetings, acknowledged shortcomings in the virtual option.
Bulloch County Schools parents and students face a Wednesday, Oct. 28, deadline to decide between virtual and face-to-face options for second semester. Information about that, and about an orientation session Monday for parents who would be new to virtual learning, can be found at www.bullochschools.org.