The Churchill County School Board of Trustees heard a no-holds-barred report from Dr. Summer Stephens, Superintendent Wednesday night at the school board meeting. Twelve days into the school year that started with recommended but optional face coverings for students and mandatory for adults, there have been 684 exclusions from class time with students and staff either experiencing COVID symptoms or having had primary exposure to someone who has symptoms. Students and staff who are excluded miss 10 days of school.
“We are facing a very serious situation at this time,” said Stephens. Of six health-related staff members in the district, three are out with health issues. “Today we had 16 positive students.”
In comparison to last school year, on September 23, 2020, there were 228 students excluded and 1 staff member. As of Wednesday, this year, there have been 684 student exclusions and 16 staff members testing positive for COVID.
Stephens said there are three main variables that are different in the system this year; last year the requirement for universal face coverings, there was greater physical distancing in the classrooms, but there are more internal cleaning protocols this year. “We are also mitigating with air quality, ionizing air filtrations, and using fog and misting with cleaning chemicals during non-school hours.”
This school year the spacing has decreased, there is an increase in the number of students in school going from the half-day hybrid model to full days, and the face-covering requirements were relaxed.
“Our number one priority is the safety and health of kids and adults,” said Stephens.
With over 900 students full-time online classes last year, and many of them not being successful, she said the goal of the district is to stay open. “Today we contemplated the need to close the high school and the middle school for several days.”
Because the district is responsible to the state department of education for the COVID response, the burden of contact tracing falls to district staff. “Our capacity to contact trace is a problem and the state has intervened to help. We have been more cautious than most districts to make sure no one is left behind and not notified, and we will have to realign some of the tracing practices,” said Stephens.
She also reported that the substitute teacher pool is “extremely thin” and the stipends that have been offered are not helping. “The variety of education those kids are getting is hard to know and ensure what’s happening. Because of the sub situation, there are multiple students without instruction, principals and support staff are subbing. We are in a bad situation.”
The state declared an official outbreak at the high school Wednesday morning and by Wednesday afternoon had included the Middle School. That declaration triggers the universal face coverings mandate that will remain in effect until the outbreak is declared closed, at least 28 days, which requires two 14-day infectious cycles. There were 44 exclusions at the Middle School on Wednesday for symptoms or primary contact.
Additionally, there are three full classes at Lahontan Elementary that have been closed, and there are 137 exclusions at that school. “We cannot stay open when students and staff can’t be at school,” said Stephens.
“I want school to stay open and we have to try our strategies that aren’t going back to hybrid or closing school. We don’t want to do that. This is the best option is for all students and staff to wear face coverings. Students want to be in school and we need everyone’s help to get this under control. We want our kids playing sports and doing their band activities and extra-curricular, we don’t want to take that away.”
Information went out late Wednesday night to parents and the community via email and social media. Because of the late hour, phone calls were not made.
Trustee Carmen Schank asked what symptoms are being experienced when students are ill to which Stephens explained sore throat, nausea, fever, etc. Schank also asked what the next plan is if this step doesn’t work.
“The state could shut us down,” said Stephens. “We could possibly go hybrid which would completely upend bussing and transportation, but it is not impossible.”
Kathryn Whitaker, Trustee, said “With the vaccination, if there is something we can do to control this to make sure we can be there for our students, as staff, and we chose not to do that it’s a little frustrating to me, but we have a responsibility to make sure these students are being taught. I hope staff recognizes their responsibility in what they can do so they can be there at school so they can be teaching, and they can be serving these students. If they’re not vaccinated, I really hope they seriously reconsider why they aren’t.”
Stephens said that 54% of the district staff has been vaccinated.
Trustee Tricia Strasdin said she appreciates the work Stephens has done. “When the state steps in we can’t ignore that. I hate how political this (face coverings) has become, but closing schools is the worst thing we can do. Whatever we can do to prevent that we have to do those things.”
“We are not giving up trying to get to a space where this is wrangled in. The reality is it is our job to keep school open,” said Stephens.