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Schools change quarantine rules
Students, staff who wear masks will be exempt
Bulloch Schools logo

Bulloch County Schools students  and employees who come into close contact with individuals with COVID-19 will no longer have to quarantine for 14 days, if they wear a mask and continue  to wear one while in face-to-face school and remain symptom-free.

Thursday night’s 8-0 vote of the Bulloch County Board of Education followed the accumulation of 900 individual quarantines since school started Aug. 17. This was not necessarily 900 individuals, since some students have been quarantined multiple times. It also follows both a sharp decline in the number of actual COVID-19 cases here and the Statesboro High School Blue Devils’ 34-7 loss the previous Friday night when 22 members of the football team were unavailable, most if not all because of COVID-19 quarantines.

Six adults, at least five of them parents of students in the school system, spoke to the board Thursday night about quarantines.

Ashley Ellis brought a petition with more than 150 signatures, representing families requesting a specific change in quarantine practice. She was also one of the parents who, in the summer, had asked the board to provide an option for face-to-face school when only a virtual option was proposed.

“We think things are going very well and obviously there’s a lot of good things going on in our school system,” Ellis said Thursday.  “We need your help to allow our students to actually stay in the classroom more, which is what we requested with the face-to-face.”

She has two sons on the Statesboro High football team who have not been quarantined. But she noted that one young woman who was quarantined was missing Senior Night with her softball team.

“She’s really missing out for a one-and-a-half percent chance that she might get it, out of the 900,” Ellis said. “It’s just heartbreaking.”


13 people = 1.5%

The 1.5% figure, mentioned several times during the meeting, reflects the fact that, of 896 Bulloch County Schools students and employees sent into precautionary quarantines a various times  between Aug. 17 to Oct. 1, there were 13 individuals who tested positive for COVID-19.

“Missing classroom instruction for two weeks is difficult to overcome, but some students are on their third quarantine after eight weeks into the school year. …,” Ellis said. “This can threaten scholarships, acceptance to colleges and universities and currently impacts students’ ability to participate in school-related activities.”

The petition specifically requested that “if Bulloch County high school students wear masks throughout the day school, they should not be quarantined if one of their classmates tests positive for COVID.”

Ellis said this policy would also relieve teachers who have been expected to provide “distance learning” to quarantined students at home while also teaching face-to-face classes.

Joanne Foss, Ph.D., a public health professional, has a son in 11th grade at Statesboro High.  His first 14-day quarantine began after Foss herself contracted the coronavirus. But after her son completed that quarantine without symptoms and returned to school Sept. 16, he was quarantined again Sept. 22 because of contact-tracing at school, Foss told the board.

“Being in public health, I am completely aware and familiar with the CDC guidelines, having had to quarantine myself as well as other members of my family,” she said. “However, I believe this has been negatively impacting our students when multiple quarantines occur.”

Joey Fennell, a licensed professional counselor in private practice in Statesboro, told the board that the quarantines are an added stressor both for students and teachers.

“Students who are being sent home, and in many cases more than one time, are losing their rhythm and ability to thrive in school,” he said.


On the agenda

The board had “quarantine guidance” on its agenda and took it up more than an hour later. Board Chairman Mike Sparks said he had brought his concerns about the quarantines to Superintendent Charles Wilson three-and-a-half weeks earlier and asked him to do “very methodical, very careful” research on what could be done.

“So this isn’t something that’s just popped up,” Sparks said. “We’ve been discussing this for quite a while.”

Wilson said he had talked to superintendents of many other Georgia school districts who share the same frustration, and that he had talked to many of those concerned locally who knew he wanted to find a solution.

He noted that the school system actually had no local policy for quarantines but was instead following Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines under an administrative order from DPH Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey. Her order, in turn, derives its authority from Gov. Brian Kemp’s emergency executive order, renewed and modified several times since mid-March. Wilson gave the board members copies of these orders.

“I don’t  think the this board and this superintendent  have ever done this before, in terms of revising  or adjusting a standing executive order in a public health crisis since, well, this is the first time we’ve all faced this,”  Wilson said. “I do know that everyone has concerns about it and we want to find a way through it.”

He also said that the official advice from the school system’s legal counsel was “that we need to follow the guidelines,” and that most of the superintendents he talked to said that they were following them.


‘Close contact’

The quarantines resulted from contact tracing initiated by school nurses and continued off campus by the Health Department. Classroom seating charts were used when possible to determine which students had been within six feet of the individual diagnosed with COVID-19 for more than 15 minutes during the day.

Commenting that “our governor is very much pro local (control),” District 4 school board member April Newkirk said that, reading Kemp’s order, she saw the DPH guidelines referred to as recommendations.

“If masks work, then why are we quarantining so many children? …” Newkirk said. “I do think we have to stop, take a breath and think about policy and common sense.”

Sparks said he had contacted several area school systems and one out-of-state school system and that they are doing different things. One system in the area and the one out of state had a rule that if a mask was worn, quarantining is not required after close contact, he said. Another nearby school district simply mandates that masks be worn.

“I think that we need to institute a policy whereby, if a student is wearing a mask, they don’t have to be quarantined,” Sparks said.

Some parents applauded, and Newkirk said, “Second!” But she then acknowledged that Sparks hadn’t actually made a motion.

Board members discussed the new policy as an incentive for students to wear masks.

Sparks, previously retired from a 32-year career as a teacher and coach, said he had assurances from coaches that if such a policy were adopted, their players will wear masks to school.


Newkirk’s motion

Newkirk made the actual motion for the board to “reconsider the DPH guidelines and if a student is exposed to a COVID-19 positive person, if the student that’s exposed is wearing a mask … then they do not have to follow those guidelines  of quarantining for 14 days.”

She included not just high schools, but all grades, and said she wanted the change to be effective immediately and for quarantined students to return to school as soon as possible.

District 1 member Cheri Wagner, RN, seconded the motion. District 3 member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., dean of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, also voted “yes” but asked Wilson to look into some daily follow-up measures, such as temperature checks and symptom questions for students who otherwise would have been quarantined.

Newkirk and others said the policy is subject to change again if the incidence of COVID-19 increases.

Friday, Wilson said he had notified school nurses and principals and believed that symptom-free quarantined students could return Monday.


Fewer cases

Since Aug. 17 when classes started, 98 cases of coronavirus have been confirmed in relation to the schools.

But after 23 cases the second week of school and 26 the third week, the number of new cases fell to just three cases last week, the eighth week of school.

Four quarantines resulted from two cases Tuesday at Statesboro High. Then 18 quarantines from one new case Friday at Southeast Bulloch Middle School were shown on the school system’s online COVID-19 spreadsheet. Hayley Greene, Bulloch County Schools public relations director, said the numbers were still being reported this way to DPH and that some parents may choose to keep these students home under DPH guidelines.



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