KEARNEY — The school district in Kearney released its Return to School Plan for the 2021-22 academic year and it includes indoor masking for all employees, students and visitors regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status.
“All students, parents/guardians and KSD staff members are strongly encouraged to take time to read through the plan before school starts on Aug. 24,” states a district release. The plan is available online at ksdr1.net/covid-19-updates.
The school board approved the plan in a special meeting Saturday, Aug. 14. Board members had been expected to discuss the plan and its approval again at the Wednesday, Aug. 18 board meeting after the board was initially split in its vote to approve Interim Superintendent Todd White’s recommendation of universal masking on Aug. 10.
After more than an hour of emotional public comments, frustrated outbursts and debate among board members at the Aug. 10 meeting, the board’s split decision came after board member Dan Holloway abstained from voting. Three board members — President Mark Kelly, Darlene Bailey and Susan Woehrman — voted in favor of the superintendent’s recommendation. The other three board members — Vice President Bree Switzer, Brian Hamm and John Kern — voted against.
Since the Aug. 10 meeting, the board was able to confer with the school district attorney about the original split vote and learned of guidance recommendations from Clay County Public Health approved by the health board after the school’s board meeting last week. That public health guidance includes wearing masks. As a result, the school board meeting was moved up.
“After a year of school closures, quarantines, isolations and hybrid schedules, we have an opportunity to have all students in our schools every day,” Interim Superintendent Todd White said of the plan via a released statement. “Our goal is clear: consistent in-person school attendance for both students and staff for the 2021-22 school year. To achieve this goal, we need to ensure we are taking the appropriate health measures to mitigate the impact of COVID-19.”
In addition to masking in school facilities, students and adults are also required to wear masks on school buses.
In a communication with stakeholders, White gave reasons the district is requiring masks, citing Clay County Public Health data that shows rising COVID-19 cases likely related to the spread of the highly-transmissible Delta variant. White noted the COVID-19 incidence rate was 237 per 100,000 in Clay County during the last week of July, according to the county health center.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers this a high rate of community transmission. Hospitalizations in the county rose 30% each week over the last half of July. The situation is as severe or worse than it was in October of 2020, at which time the Kearney schools were under a mask mandate for all students and staff,” states a district release.
In addition to rising cases, White and the district also noted changes made recently by public health authorities in recommendations including quarantine guidance for schools. This guidance includes less restrictive isolation measures for those wearing masks as opposed to those who do not and who may become close contacts of those diagnosed with the virus.
“If the school has implemented a mask mandate, and appropriate masks were being worn correctly by both individuals during the time of exposure in the school setting, the individual who came in contact with the person with COVID-19 can continue to attend school and participate in school-related activities, so long as they can wear a mask and maintain social distance. This exception does not apply to staff and other adult visitors,” states the district release citing Clay County Public Health, CDC and state guidance.
Masking allows more students to be in school and avoid unnecessary quarantines, White said.
“We want and need to have all students in school every day class is in session. This is imperative,” he said.
Last year, more than 1,800 quarantines were required in Kearney schools. “Averaging eight school days for each quarantine period, excluding weekends, the approximate loss of in-person instructional time for the 2020-21 school term was over 14,000 days, or nearly 90,000 hours of learning loss. KSD simply cannot allow that to happen this year,” states the district release.
“We don’t want to wear masks, but it is an important mitigation step that will allow teaching and learning to continue uninterrupted,” White said. “If all goes well, we can remove our masks as soon as it is safe to do so.”