Salem Discusses Adding Mask Wearing to Reduce Quarantine Absences

Salem Discusses Adding Mask Wearing to Reduce Quarantine Absences

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Salem School Board President Rodney Brough said a new plan to help keep students in school will be revealed on Tuesday, Sept. 7 and that mask-wearing would be part of the strategy to keep Covid absences at a minimum. 

I think our plan will support masks,” said Brough. “We want a safe environment for them and for our staff and faculty.”

He said the plan would mimick the concerns of the public, who stated during the meeting that if masks were able to control the numbers of students who had to quarantine, then masks should be worn. 

The Salem Community School Board met in a special meeting Monday evening at 6:30p to discuss a plan to return students to school. 

They are currently in a virtual education mode through Sept. 6 and will return to school in person on Sept. 7. 

The administration made this move on Wednesday, August 25 due to the high absentee rate, which the state caps at 20 percent.  For any school that has a rate higher than 20 percent due to any sickness, the school must temporarily close. 

According to Brough, Salem Schools were close to 27 percent absenteeism. 

“It would have gone higher,” if the school would have gone another day,” said Brough.

Several hundred students were absent due to contact tracing, which is one of the Centers for Disease Controls guidelines to try and mitigate the spread of Covid-19. 

Current guidelines for close contact include anyone who has been within three feet of a COVID-19 positive person for at least 15 minutes during a 24-hour period.

According to the Indiana State Department of Health, any individual who is a close contact will be required to quarantine for 10 days unless the individual has either been fully vaccinated or the individual was at least three feet apart and wearing a mask properly. 

According to Adam VanOsdol, Communications Specialist/Content Strategist, with the Indiana School Boards Association, schools have leeway in two main areas, which are outlined in the above document:

  1. If schools require face masks in classrooms, they can contact trace to three feet rather than six feet. (This is important, because many schools have found that classrooms aren’t large enough to ensure six feet of space between desks; with masks, three feet of space between desks is enough to avoid having students identified as close contacts needing to quarantine)
  2. Three options are available when contact tracing identifies a student as a close contact: 1) 14 days of quarantine at home; 2) 10 days of quarantine at home, return to school on day 11, and wear a face mask on days 11-14; 3) 7 days of quarantine at home, return to school on day 8 with a negative test result, and wear a face mask on days 8-14.

Although the board did not actually discuss their plan or vote to implement one, they did allow members of the public to speak and mirrored their concerns to get students back to school.

Aaron Howey, Chris Hunt, Matthew Magner, and Bill Suvak all spoke to the board with two similarities — make students wear masks if that keeps them in school and all noted the importance of keeping students in class.

Hunt, a parent of two Salem students said that he believed contact tracing was not working and was not used in the business world. 

“I talked to quite a few parents who have expressed…in the private industry, we really don’t do contact tracing, because it really doesn’t work,” said Hunt.

“To prove this, the two kids who have Covid-19 on the football team, they basically are quarantined. They are out [of school] because they have Covid-19. The other 72 kids….none of them are sick. To this day, none of them are sick. When you look at the numbers of the Covid-19 cases vs. quarantine…do you have those numbers? Covid cases vs actual quarantine” asked Hunt.

Brough said he didn’t have those numbers but thought it was somewhere around five percent of the students out of school in quarantine vs. actual students who had Covid-19.

“Administration feels it’s a little higher,” said Brough. 

“So we’re taking 400 kids and quarantining them because of 12 kids [that have Covid-19]?” asked Hunt. “When you shut down these schools, that’s what makes these kids not learn. Looking at last year, was it a successful year? No. My kid came to me and said he learned nothing last year.”

Hunt proposed a situation where a fictional student named Johnny gets sick and a friend, Jack, has sat beside him, is identified through contract tracing as a “close contact.”

“Then Jack goes home too?” Asked Hunt. “Both of them have masks on then do jack and Johnny both go home?” 

Brough answered “No.”  

“There’s your answer,” said Hunt. 

“The one thing with Covid we cannot control is quarantine,” said Brough. “We don’t make those guidelines. But how we mitigate quarantine, we can. And we’re not here to say masks work or don’t work. But they will stop quarantine numbers.”

Magner agreed with getting students back to school. 

“If the mask is what’s going to keep that number down, then I’m for it, he said. “I’m not here to talk about vaccinated, unvaccinated, mask or no mask. What we have to do is open the school up. I care what happens in Washington County. That’s why I come back here. If we can get it opened up and it’s a mask thing, then mask it is.”

Suvak spoke in support as well.

“What we also know is that our youth, need to be in school,” he said. “They have been hurt and they are being hurt. I don’t know how you can make up for what’s been lost. I appreciate what you are going through and I support you. It’s very very important to do whatever is possible to get the kids in school.”

Board member Mark Day said the school’s plan had been reactive, but that it needs to be proactive. 

“The thing may not be put to bed yet. We need to be a little quicker to react,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to get people’s opinions. To minimize it is the best we can do at this point. The more support, the more we function as a team — the kids are watching us to see how we react to these things. It’s very important that they see us band together to support one another. I’m very impressed and very proud that Salem can do that.” 

Board member Becky Humphrey asked about how the lunchtimes will be handled. 

Administrator Brent Minton said he was working with Salem Middle School Principal Kevin Albertson and High School Principal Troy Albert to adjust lunch procedures. 

Board Member and Vice-President Becky White explained that the board had earlier granted Minton and Assistant Superintendent Kim Thurston emergency powers to act without the board when Superintendent Jon Acton took an extended medical leave in July. 

White said Monday’s meeting was the first by the board to address the recent Covid spike. 

“In the beginning of this year — It wasn’t just our corporation [that didn’t initiate a mask mandate],” she said. “Nobody wanted to make the mask mandate because so many parents were not for it and had issues with it. And we had a stretch there when numbers were low in July. We didn’t think things would escalate until the winter. Our numbers did go higher than what the health department thought. In that, we opened school up and it is what it is. We have tried the non-mask mandate and we tried to do it that way, but we can see that it’s not the way to go…people need to understand our point of view and our concern…everyone on this board…our concern is for the safety of the children and our staff. That’s what we were voted in to do and to make sure everyone stays healthy and not to be reckless in any form.”