Apr. 2—As the school year approaches its final stretch, the school system must weigh the desires many have to relax some pandemic precautions, like the on-campus mask mandate, along with the need to keep schools open through the critical period of end-of-year testing.
Spring break begins this weekend for local schools, and the district has so far this year seen a pattern of COVID-19 cases and exposures rising among staff members and students immediately after extended school breaks.
During her monthly COVID-19 update to the school board at a work session Thursday, Valerie Whitehead said she's afraid of the impact easing restrictions at this time would have, especially on graduating seniors whose assessments must be completed before the school year ends.
"My goal every day is for us to be able to keep school open," said Whitehead, the school system's executive director of strategy and innovation. "Our trends have shown that for us, following a school break or closure where students are not in the structured environment of school, we typically see an increase of cases afterwards."
Within weeks after spring break, students will begin end-of-year and AP testing.
"Not that it's all about testing, but we do have students who are going to be graduating this year who need to complete their EOCs and take their AP exams to have those posted to their transcript in time for college admissions and all those things," Whitehead said. "I would hate for us to think about jeopardizing their option to be able to test because they have an exposure or other things that would be because of practices that we've changed."
School board members raised concerns about the current policies or the potential of changing them.
School board member Mike Hulsey said he'd like to see consistent enforcement of the policies across the district.
Marcus Edgy, chairman of the school board, said his concern is the high number of students who are being quarantined when the numbers of students becoming sick is very low.
"My biggest problem is we've quarantined, I don't know, thousands of kids probably," he said. "And of those thousand, maybe five have actually had a symptom or developed a symptom.
"I'm just thinking that we're quarantining way too many kids, and we've made it this far and now's the goal line for these kids who have the EOCs and everything else."
School board member John Madala, who works in the healthcare field, said the risk remains for students to spread the virus to older or other more vulnerable community members.
He said he would like to see the school district maintain its precautionary protocols.
"What we're doing is working," Madala said. "Let's not stop until we finish this year."
Some in the community say they'd like to see less restrictions, Whitehead said. But she also hears positive feedback about school policies from many who rely on schools staying open.
"I've had major employers in this area who have said they are grateful that we've had specific guidelines because it's allowed school to be open," Whitehead said. "That's their impression, and their employees have been able to come to work because school is open."
Superintendent Scott Spence said he has considered allowing students who are outside, like during class changes, to take off their masks before going back inside. And that change would be allowed outside at all schools.
"But not in our school bus and not inside the building," Spence said.
First, he wants to see how spring break impacts COVID-19 numbers in schools.
Whitehead also provided an update on how the school system plans to address gaps in fine arts education this school year created by the pandemic.
Some schools have not offered the same fine arts opportunities as in past years.
Whitehead said there are plans in place to expand performing arts opportunities in schools.
"Through some recent releases and some research, we were able to identify some musicians' masks that met the thresholds for some of the safety concerns and some different bell covers that they could use on the instruments," Whitehead said.
A system-wide order has been placed for middle and high schools.
District leaders also recently learned that CARES Act funding is designated for learning loss in schools and that performing arts can be identified as an area of learning loss.
That funding will be used locally to offer a new kind of summer program focused on the performing arts, Whitehead said.
"That would be a new option, kind of an enrichment opportunity for students over the summer, and for those areas that have not traditionally had a summer program that we've paid for," she said.