The Unit 40 school board met this week to discuss its plan for returning to in-person learning. Though the board reviewed a draft plan put together by district staff and a survey of community members’ opinions about the draft, it did not approve the plan.
The board did not vote on it because it did not have enough members present to form a majority of the entire board if they were to vote, based on an informal vote. Board members Steve Bone and Brad Waldhoff were absent from the meeting.
Unit 40 Superintendent Mark Doan said he was scheduling a special meeting to approve the plan, which should be held in the next two weeks.
“This is our reopening plan,” he said. “It’s important to get that down before school starts.”
Students will return to classes on Aug. 25, though teachers will return two days earlier to prepare for the school year.
Guidelines for schools are also rapidly changing as the delta variant of COVID surges around the country.
The CDC on Tuesday announced updated guidelines for masking. The public health agency now recommends that everyone in schools wear a mask, regardless of age, vaccination status or number of cases in the surrounding community.
Illinois Department of Public Health on Tuesday said it “is fully adopting” CDC masking guidelines, including recommendation for schools.
“While data continues to show the effectiveness of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized in the U.S., including against the delta variant, we are still seeing the virus rapidly spread among the unvaccinated,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a news release. “Cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 both continue to increase, overwhelmingly among the unvaccinated, but the risk is greater for everyone if we do not stop the ongoing spread of the virus and the delta variant. We know masking can help prevent transmission of COVID-19 and its variants. Until more people are vaccinated, we join CDC in recommending everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask indoors in areas of substantial and high transmissions, and in K-12 schools.” (See full story on page B4)
While he hadn’t had the chance to review the guidance from either agency, Doan said that the district will review the updated guidance and discuss the latest recommendations at the board’s special meeting.
“Does something on the west coast affect Effingham, Illinois? At some point, it may. That’s one of the questions people have,” said Doan. “It’s a constantly fluid situation.”
The primary disagreement between board members on Monday was how the district should handle masking requirements for teachers and staff.
“These children haven’t had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” said board member Desha Wear. “It’s our responsibility to protect them.”
Board President Robin Klosterman proposed requiring unvaccinated teachers, staff members and adult visitors to schools — like volunteers — to wear masks. The move was supported by Wear, who is a physician.
Other board members were vocally opposed to the requirement.
“It’s a well known fact that masks don’t protect you or anyone else,” said Board Member Jane Willenborg in a comment that is disputed by multiple scientific studies.
Masks do offer “source control” protection, limiting the amount of virus spread by someone infected with COVID who is wearing a mask, and they also protect the wearer from inhaling droplets of water containing viruses like COVID, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A May review of scientific literature on the subject published by the CDC cites no less than 15 studies of various methodologies supporting masks’ protective benefits.
While the board was divided on requiring adults wearing masks, they did not seriously consider requiring students to wear masks, though the plan does explicitly say that staff will encourage students to be respectful of people that do wear masks.
“Requiring students to mask is probably something our community won’t bear,” said Klosterman.
The board was receptive to the rest of the plan, though members did discuss adding a way for parents to voluntarily share their students’ vaccination status with schools in order to make it easier for staff to know who should be in quarantine at any given time.
This will also be discussed at the board’s upcoming special meeting.
Beyond the issues of masking, the board also heard some concerns about the way they collected feedback for the plan.
“People are concerned with the rising cases of the delta variant,” said Effingham Classroom Teachers Association President Michael Lambton. The ECTA is the district’s teacher union.
The board collected feedback from 690 individuals through a survey sent to community members, parents and staff. The survey was open for responses for four days last week.
Lambton requested the board seek more feedback from teachers, citing a 140 character limit in the section of the survey left for general feedback on the plan.
“I’ve had a couple of members come up to me saying there wasn’t enough feedback,” Lambton added in an interview.
Data from the survey showed that respondents were favorable to every part of the plan, though a small minority of respondents did disagree with the plan’s tenets.
A board-approved plan is a requirement for the district to use funds made available through the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund.
Doan informed the board on Monday of the district’s plan to offer voluntary COVID testing to unvaccinated students who were exposed to COVID-19, citing Illinois Department of Public Health guidelines.
“IDPH allows students with a negative Binax test back in the classroom,” said Doan.
The test, a rapid test with lower sensitivity than popular PCR tests, must be administered by one of the district’s two nurses.