CHARLES TOWN — The Jefferson County School Board voted unanimously Monday night to scrap the universal masking policy in the district.
With the vote, which was 4-0, as board member Donna Joy recused herself on the basis of a conflict of interest, the choice to mask or not will be up to each family. Board member Laurie Ogden’s motion and seconded by board member Gary Kable also advised staff to have new guidelines or protocols ready to be put in place by next Monday.
The move to a mask-optional situation comes after months of a one-size-fits-all policy, parental denial, parental support, and multiple updates and changes by governing bodies. Prior to Monday night’s regular session meeting, the district held a special session where Jefferson County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Bondy Gibson-Learn, presented the latest information received from the Department of Education. from West Virginia, the fourth update since December. 28.
The latest update, which arrived Jan. 31, gave districts across the state two options: continue with universal masking or switch to optional masking. Each choice came with sets of guidelines that should be followed, with each set weighing in the board’s review.
With the universal policy, schools would be allowed to discontinue contract tracking, and people in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19 would be allowed to stay in person at school as long as they remain asymptomatic. The State Department has encouraged districts to implement an unmasked positive testing program requiring notification by class or school.
An optional policy requires quarantine of close contacts, depending on vaccination status. Contact tracing tasks are being transferred to JCS staff, as this needs to be done at the school and classroom level. It was also recently announced that county health departments will no longer conduct contact tracing for districts.
Staff and students must wear masks for 10 days after exposure, with Gibson expressing some concerns about HIPPA violations. The testing strategy to remain already implemented in the district would remain, but discussion surrounded the possibility of rapid testing down the line.
Gibson also provided an overview of what’s changed most recently, including the definition of fully vaccinated. According to the State Department, students and staff over the age of 18 must have had the primary series within the past six months or received a booster to be considered fully vaccinated. Students 17 and under must have completed their primary series to be considered fully vaccinated. People who have tested positive in the last 90 days will be considered fully vaccinated in reference to contact tracing
She added that rapid tests and home testing options are not approved for testing requirements.
Throughout her presentation, Gibson expressed concern about moving to an optional system for two reasons: HIPPA concerns about who should and should not be masked, and the company contact tracing by staff.
“Our nursing staff have to do this for every close contact that is unreasonable,” she said. “It’s an unreasonable demand of school systems.”
Gibson added that senior staff had done work to determine the cost of hiring an outside source to contact research, which would be around $600,000 for the remainder of the school year.
Providing insight into the lengthy contact tracing process used by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Gibson pointed to the extra work that would be taken on by nursing staff, whom board members encountered with questions. on flexibility to determine the district’s own process. Ogden, when discussing the lack of public confidence in the healthcare system and vaccinations, referred to how the district handled rampant flu in a pre-COVID-19 world. She stressed that sick students and staff stay home and those who do not come to school.
Ogden emphasized that the education and safety of children are the primary goals of a district, adding that no large outbreaks have occurred in the district, just smaller ones, usually at the classroom level, which n weren’t much different than a bad flu year.
Gibson said staff believe that because no definition of contact tracing has been given, the district has some leeway as to what it would mean for Jefferson County individually, until further notice. The superintendent hinted that contact tracing would be much like what the district did during the pre-COVID flu outbreak.
During the regular meeting, as the board proceeded to vote, board chair Kathy Skinner pointed out that the original choice to be universal revolved around not letting one parent’s choice affect many children, which no longer came into play under the new directives. Board member Gary Kable said it looks like the dire health situation for young people isn’t what it used to be.
The vote to move to the optional system was met with loud applause from those present, several of whom spoke during the public comments to encourage the council to lift the mandate.