Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Tuesday, Aug. 31 @ 4:45 p.m. / COVID-19, Education
Students Return to School Amid Mask Mandates, Testing and Quarantine Protocols, Local COVID Surge
Five students and 10 employees were positive for COVID-19 within the last 10 days, according to numbers Del Norte County Unified School District released on the second day of school.
Despite a spike in local cases fueled by more virulent Delta Variant, approximately 3,600 students returned to in-person learning Monday. As they begin the 2021-22 school year, they and staff face new masking requirements, testing and quarantining recommendations. Staff must also be vaccinated or be tested weekly by state order.
Del Norte Unified School District comes out an updated report on the number of students and staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past 10 days every Tuesday, according to district spokesman Michael Hawkins. However, he said, the district doesn’t track the number of close contacts who may be having to quarantine.
On Tuesday, Hawkins said, two people may have been close contacts to an individual who tested positive for COVID-19, but he wasn’t sure if they were vaccinated.
In his report to the DNUSD Board of Trustees on Thursday, Superintendent Jeff Harris refuted rumors that school wouldn’t open and that students would return to distance learning. He called the first day of school the most exciting thing to happen in two years “except when we had an all in-person graduation at Del Norte High last year.”
“Students will attend school. They will be masked while indoors at all times unless they’re eating, drinking or they have a doctor’s exemption,” Harris said. “When they go outdoors, they will be wearing a mask at least for the short-term because of the COVID surge in our community if they cannot be physically distanced six feet apart.”
There were only two instances that would force school closures, Harris said. The first is if an outbreak occurs at a school and the Del Norte County Public Health Officer decides it has to close, Harris said.
The second is if so many staff members are out sick, the district couldn't keep that campus open, Harris said.
Staff will be required to wear masks indoors as well, Harris said. Administration is also urging staff to wear masks outside if they’re unable to physically distance, he said.
The requirement that masks are required indoors for students and staff come from the California Department of Public Health, according to Harris.
However, the mandate that students and staff wear masks outdoors comes from the Del Norte County Public Health Officer, Dr. Aaron Stutz, Hawkins told the Wild Rivers Outpost on Tuesday. DNUSD follows the stricter guidelines, according to Hawkins.
“He overrode that state guidance with a local guidance where students wear masks indoors and outdoors unless they are isolated further,” Hawkins said, referring to Stutz’s recent order.
On Thursday, Harris addressed a number of concerns he said he’s heard from parents and the community related to masks and to vaccines.
One of those concerns has to do with whether the Board of Trustees can disregard the state’s mask mandate. Harris, pointing to CDPH guidance issued Aug. 23, stated that the district and school board financially, civilly and legally liable for failing to follow masking requirements.
This includes a referral for certificated individuals, teachers and administrators, to the Commission on Teacher Credentialing for disciplinary action, according to CDPH guidance.
“We are trying to keep our staff and students as healthy as possible,” Harris said. “We’ve seen situations where there are huge outbreaks at school, where everybody’s showing up, hallways are packed and people aren’t masked — we want to avoid that. This is our first go around on keeping kids healthy.”
According to Hawkins, Stutz also issued a stricter definition for a close contact — someone who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and has to quarantine. At the local level, anyone, masked or unmasked, who has been within six feet of a COVID-positive individual for 10 minutes may have to quarantine, according to Hawkins.
At the state level, that close contact timeframe is within 15 minutes, Hawkins said.
Staff who are not vaccinated are required to get tested and quarantine for 10 days even if they test negative for COVID, according to Hawkins. Testing positive results in an extended quarantine, he said.
On Thursday, Harris also addressed vaccines, noting that another myth he had heard was that the district was giving students the COVID-19 inoculation.
“That is not true,” he said. “Our district has never provided a COVID vaccine for a child. There have been public agencies that have requested to use our facilities for vaccines…. We’ve made sure that they use our facilities after students have gone for the day or on weekends when students are not present.”
On Friday, DNUSD issued a statement regarding testing at school, advising parents that under state law, students ages 13 and older may self consent and those who refuse may be sent home to quarantine until tested by their doctor. Students 12 and under must have parental consent in order to be tested for COVID-19.
“Testing will be required two times per week for students on modified quarantine in order to remain at school,” DNUSD’s statement said. “If parents/guardians do not provide consent to testing, the student will be required to isolate at home for 10 days before they are able to return to school as long as they have no symptoms.”
Despite the district’s efforts to reassure parents, which also includes Harris’s participation in a weekly forum Thursday addressing the recent COVID surge, many expressed their misgivings on Facebook.
“Our county health department advised only 10 members of the public be able to attend school board meeting for fear of spreading COVID as well as recommending all employers have employees work from home,” Staci Gibson-Rudesill said on Facebook. “Yet we have kids with no mask outside while attending school, recess, football practice, and many other activities, then cram kids back in school with mask and they don’t have a problem with that.”
Other parents balked at the district potentially testing their children.
“No way will I allow either of my children to be tested,” Tina McGuire Gaston wrote on Facebook.
For more information on COVID-19 guidance for schools, visit www.dnusd.org/familyresources.