By JAMES BELL
ELLIS — On Monday, the Ellis USD 388 Board of Education approved a change in the district's COVID-19 mitigation strategy after nearly a quarter of students in the combined junior/senior high school were quarantined last week.
The concern with the old policy boiled down to the length — 10 days — of a quarantine when a student is deemed a close contact of a positive COVID-19 case.
Over 40 students, including football team members, were quarantined last week in the district.
"That ended up putting a big impact on us this last week because we ended up getting a couple of positive student cases that were on an activities team, and then we got another case positive on that team," said Superintendent Corey Burton.
With three cases in the one group, he said the Ellis County Health Services Department quarantines the whole group.
"That ended up having a huge impact on us," Burton said. "Those three cases ended up putting over 40 kids, about 45 kids, in quarantine for the week. And that is a lot of missed class time."
He said the much larger Hays district was also seeing the same impact and implemented the suggested plan from the health department earlier in the day Monday.
The new plan is designed to help lessen the impact of the number of students in quarantine at any given time while continuing to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
In essence, the new plan implements stronger mitigation strategies based upon the number of active cases in the district, with mask mandates and quarantine policy becoming more strict should case numbers increase.
But it also implements the ability for students that are deemed close contacts to return to school if masks are worn, and the district monitors for symptoms or the students receive a negative COVID-19 test after day five of the quarantine.
The new policy would be enacted district-wide, with Burton saying implementing the procedures by building would create a system that was incredibly difficult to track compared to the policy in place last year.
"Keeping track of all this is already a nightmare," Burton said. "The more caveats we're going to put to this, the more difficult it is to try to keep track of."
Burton also told the board that setting different policies for vaccinated and unvaccinated students would add significantly more tracking.
The district learned that a vaccinated student had tested positive earlier in the day, with contact tracing set to begin.
"We could say a vaccinated student doesn't need to wear a mask," Burton said. "But it will create another layer of things that we have to keep track of, and I'm telling you, we have our first case of a vaccinated student that has tested positive that we will be close contact tracing."
Vaccinated or not, Burton said mask protection only works to stop large amounts of quarantine if both parties are masked up.
But the potential of district-wide mask mandates was not readily accepted by the board, with almost an hour's worth of discussion before the measure would be voted on.
One of the most discussed aspects of the proposed plan was the lack of consideration for vaccination status.
"To me that just, again, let's say we get to that seven active cases and it's a district-wide mask mandate, I sure would like it to be an option for our teachers to not be in a mask, or our vaccinated kids, that are fully vaccinated for them not to be in a mask," said board member Jared Schiel.
"We could do that," Burton said. "By what Jason (Kennedy, director, Ellis County Health Services) said he would recommend we not, but we could do that."
Last year, board member Cindy Hertel noted that the district was highly successful in stopping transmission through wearing masks and social distancing measures.
"I hate wearing masks, but we were really successful last year before the vaccine ever came into existence," she said. "So I would rather say somebody had to wear a mask."
She also noted the mask would help protect those that choose not to get vaccinated.
"We can't say you have to get a vaccine, but the mask is something that you don't have to put in your body if you don't believe in that," Hertel said. "But I know it is not easy to do either."
Board member Marty Hollern shared concern with a different policy for vaccinated and unvaccinated.
"I don't want to identify kids, you're vaccinated, you're not vaccinated," he said. "I have concerns," later noting vaccinated and unvaccinated can spread the virus.
"I think we need to treat them the same if they are going to mask up," Hollern said.
But it's not just the students that would be affected.
Schiel noted that the policy will also affect teachers and might cause consternation.
"If you're a teacher and you got vaccinated because you didn't want to worry about wearing a mask teaching, we're telling you now that you have got to wear a mask because we are not going to treat your vaccination status any differently," he said.
While the plan would potentially bring masks back into the schools to help stop the high number of students from being quarantined, another critical component is testing.
The district has access to some rapid testing, Burton said, with results coming in as little as 15 minutes.
Results from the more accurate PCR testing, like currently used in local clinics, comes in around 24 hours.
With either, a negative test would end a close contact quarantine after day five with the new plan.
Although the tests will be available, Burton warned the amount of time needed to do full-scale testing could be problematic.
"If we get to the point that we have to start testing a lot of people, we would have to staff up more," Burton said.
Either test would be accepted in the new plan after the mandatory five-day quarantine.
Funding for tests will come from grants under the test-to-know program.
"So if somebody wants to know and we need to know ... we will have the ability to test them," Burton said.
While masks, testing and quarantines were all considered, Burton said the ultimate goal is keeping children in classrooms as much as possible.
"The key is, we need kids in school," he said. "We would rather have them in the building, and there are things we can do to keep them in our building. ... I think that is a positive for the education of our kids."
"The big thing is we have to avoid a situation like we had last week," Schiel said.
Burton said last year there were several examples in the district of students required to complete a quarantine several times due to being close to a positive case.
"It's hard on any kid to get quarantined," Burton said. "You miss 20-30 days of school that's hard."
Before the board voted on the measure, he reminded the board, the policy could be changed at any time, but as written, would apply through the end of the academic year.
The board passed the measure 6-1, with Hollern voting against.
Schiel and Hertel, along with board members Brian Shannon, Dean Gottschalk, Randy Honas and DJ Fischer, voted in favor of the policy.