Petersburg’s school board and administrators are still hashing out the details of COVID-19 mitigation measures for the upcoming school year, now less than a month away.
Superintendent Erica Kludt-Painter noted at a work session on Friday that things have changed since the start of the summer and the dissolution of the community’s Emergency Operations Center, or EOC.
“We don’t really have a whole coordinated effort, coordinated communications, all of those kinds of things, because that was disbanded in June,” she said. “I think that makes it really challenging for us to be trying to navigate the entire public health landscape within our walls.”
Last year, some school districts established “trigger numbers,” or community-wide case counts that would push them into green, yellow, or red zones. Many are considering the same system this year. But Kludt-Painter noted, case numbers alone don’t always paint a full picture.
“There’s seven cases you do this, 14 cases you do this. It doesn’t work,” she said. “We already know that, because the seven cases might be all in the cannery or the seven cases might be cases in the school.”
Instead of trigger numbers, the school board is shaping guidelines around age and vaccination status. Elementary school protocols might be different than middle and high school, because kids under 12 can’t get vaccinated. One idea is to require all K-5 students to wear masks. Kinley Lister, the school board’s student representative, said that kind of rule would be a tough sell to older students.
“I think, if we did require universal masking at the middle school and high school level, there would not be much compliance with that,” Lister said. “There would be a lot of students who are like, ‘No. I’m vaccinated, and I’m not doing it.’”
Some protocols from last year will stay in place, like physical distancing and hand-washing. There’s also a federal mandate that requires masks on school buses regardless of vaccination status. Here, that would also apply to school-sponsored boat and plane trips.
Other rules will change. Middle schoolers won’t be in pods this year. Kids will be allowed to use lockers again. Remote learning will likely not be an option for kids who test positive or have to quarantine after travel, said middle and high school principal Rick Dormer. Instead, teachers would assign make-up work, like they did before COVID.
In July the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that people in areas with high transmission should wear masks at indoor public spaces, regardless of vaccination status. Petersburg does not currently meet that threshold.
The board discussed requiring unvaccinated teachers to wear masks, while leaving it optional for vaccinated ones. Meg Litster noted this would make vaccination status more obvious.
“I could see somebody being uncomfortable,” she said. “But again, it’s a personal choice and the fact of the matter is, they’re at the highest risk for spreading it and getting it. So that’s your option: wear a mask or be vaccinated. I don’t care what anybody chooses, but we have to protect our children one way or the other, right?”
According to the school board, 71% of school staff are vaccinated and 33% of eligible students are partially or fully vaccinated.
The district had planned to hire a school nurse to help with testing but hasn’t filled the position yet.
With no EOC and only occasional mask wearing in the rest of the community, many board members wondered how much of a difference their rules could make. Still, the superintendent said, they need to consider the CDC’s mask guidelines.
“It doesn’t mean they absolutely tell us what has to happen, but we have to look at that guidance and take it into consideration. Because we’re receiving federal funds for this, to be able to help support education during COVID.”
The next school board meeting is Tuesday, August 10.