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School officials at state and local levels studying need for mask mandate this fall

BUCKHANNON – When students return to Upshur County Schools in the fall, there will likely be no mask mandate, and instead of a ‘re-entry’ plan, back-to-school will be handled via a mitigation-and-response approach.

With the Delta variant of COVID-19 causing an upsurge in cases; the COVID vaccine only having been approved for youth ages 12 years of age and above; and not enough people having been vaccinated to create ‘herd immunity,’ lots of community members are wondering what back-to-school is going to entail.

At the July 27 Upshur County Board of Education meeting, Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Dr. Jeffery Harvey spoke about that very topic, addressing the uncertainty surrounding a return to school for the upcoming year.

Harvey said the vaccinations are the best mechanism Upshur County Schools has in terms of limiting the number of exposures.

“We have been [working with] a lot of our partners, trying to encourage our folks to get vaccinated – employees, families, students – but there is still work to be done there and still a role to play there,” Harvey said. “As we get into the fall, I think we cannot forget we have a role to play in that message because the school year will have started. We need to help our folks make the best decision they can for them.”

Harvey said rather than re-entry into school, which was accomplished in January 2021, he is calling the plan ‘mitigation-and-response.’

“We are going to try to lessen the impacts – which is the mitigation side – and we know we will have cases which are going to cause us to respond,” Harvey said. “Basically, this is an extension of what we utilized during our summer program with a couple of changes to account for a larger population and changes because of the variants of COVID.”

He said it is a layered approach following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations.

“Everything we have been doing with the cleaning, the contact tracing and quarantining – it pains me to say we are still going to have to contact trace and quarantine – but that is the reality of the situation,” Harvey said. “We still are going to achieve as much physical distancing as we can in the school buildings. We are not going to get students six feet apart (in all classrooms and spaces), and the CDC has recognized that and indicated that getting the most physical distancing is a great thing. However, they have said not being able to achieve the six-feet distancing is not a reason to suspend in-person learning.”

Harvey said the hope is that instructors will be mindful of the way they set up their classrooms and activities – specifically, that those setups encourage as much physical distancing as possible.

“The two biggest changes you are going to see over and above what we had last year is the current version of the ‘mitigation-and-response’ plan is this policy, at this time, does not include a mask mandate,” Harvey said. “Unless we go to the point where community spread of COVID would require we consider that, we will not mandate masks.”

“We had a meeting yesterday with the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department and Community Care of West Virginia to talk about some of the testing options,” he added. “Basically, if you present with symptoms, child or adult, we will try to do a test; however, there are some consent and procedural items that need to be ironed out around that – but we are working to have that underway.”

Harvey said if there are known exposures in a classroom or during an extracurricular activity, there would be testing resources available to determine the extent of the outbreak.

“So, we will not have to go as wide as what we did last year,” he said. “We will be able to pinpoint those that need to be protected and keep people safe and bring people back into in-person learning more quickly.”

Harvey said they had discussed some ‘test-to-play’ options to play sports and participate in extracurricular activities.

“That is an option we will get some guidance on from the state,” Harvey said. “The general idea is you can do that per event or on a schedule, and we are leaning toward a schedule because of the number of times some sports play in a week compared to other sports. That would be a way we could keep an eye on what is happening in the extracurricular environment.”

“Finally, the part we are looking at there and working out with our partners is some regular surveillance testing for unvaccinated adults,” Harvey said. “I know that sounds very provocative, but I do not intend for it to be. It would be a random pool; if you are fully vaccinated, you would be exempt from that random pool. Again, this is just a way for us to be able to keep everyone safe and be able to get some good ideas where they stand.”

Harvey said some of the community partners, including West Virginia Wesleyan College, had success with that plan.

“Our friends at Wesleyan had some success with this plan – so it is not something we just kind of dreamed up,” Harvey shared.

Board of Education member Kristi Wilkerson said when she was reading through the document Harvey presented, at some points it sounded like Upshur County Schools would not ever require masks.

“I would encourage us to look at that statement and clarify that [language],” Wilkerson said. “I understand where the Governor sits at this point and where the American Association of Pediatrics sits and as of today, the CDC as well. I think there needs to be some clarification of ‘at this time’ because down further in the document it says, ‘there are these things, too.’ Someone could come back and say, ‘it says we are not requiring masks ever in the school year.’ I think it needs clarification.”

BOE Vice President Katie Loudin indicated she had also been reading guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends children over age 2 wear masks.

“I just feel like there has to be some consideration that our under-12 population is not able to be vaccinated yet,” Loudin said. “Universal masking does not discriminate. It is equitable. Common sense would say we are going to get further in the school year and be healthier as a community if we consider masking from the beginning. I am not calling for a giant change tonight; I am just asking that we consider what that would look like.”

Loudin said ensuring in-person learning for as long as possible should be the ultimate goal.

“I understand we have another meeting before school begins, but as a parent and a community member, I am thinking about how we can go into this school year better equipped,” Loudin said. “How can we stay in school longer as the Delta variant is raging through our community? I just have serious concerns about us just being careless when this is so easy.”

BOE member Pat Long said he feels the Delta variant is much worse than any COVID-19 strain faced in the past.

“It is 250 times more contagious,” Long said. “It does not make sense to me that we come into the fall with this set of guidelines if we have a problem and no guidelines with how to avoid a problem. Just washing our hands and trying to stay apart from one another is not enough.”

Long said he did not think kids complained about wearing masks; he also suggested branching out from random testing of unvaccinated people to weekly testing of unvaccinated people who work in Upshur County Schools.

“I think personally, we should have a mask mandate as long as we are facing the Delta variant,” Long said. “I also think the random testing of unvaccinated people cannot be effective. I think unvaccinated people should be tested every week.”

Harvey said he does not disagree.

“We need to make sure we are equitable in how we do it,” Harvey said. “That comes down to resources available to do that.”

At the July 27 BOE meeting, Harvey expected to receive guidance from the W.Va. Department of Education Wednesday, July 28, but when My Buckhannon spoke with Harvey this week, he said that as of Monday, Aug. 2, the WVDE has not issued a mask mandate and continues to take everything under advisement. The next Upshur County BOE meeting is set for 7 p.m. Aug. 10 at Buckhannon-Upshur High School.

Update: The West Virginia Board of Education is expected to announce guidelines this week, as early as Wednesday afternoon.

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