Friday, January 28, 2022

Jump in coronavirus cases among students as school year gets underway

The Western News | September 10, 2021 7:00 AM


Libby Elementary School students play after their first day of classes on Aug. 25. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

Within days of opening classrooms, Libby Elementary School has seen over 20 students and staff members test positive for the coronavirus — almost half the total number of positive test results the school saw last year.

Superintendent Ron Goodman said seven staff members and 14 students had tested positive for the virus as of Sept. 9. A total of 110 students were in quarantine as of a school board meeting two days prior. Wendy Chopyak, an elementary school teacher, told board members she suspected the number of quarantined individuals was higher after talking with parents.

Despite the spike in positive cases, Goodman said 88 percent of students were still participating in classes either remotely or in-person.

While some students and staff may have contracted the virus outside of classrooms, Goodman said school officials were “pretty certain” the virus had spread among first grade students.

“Last year, we had 47 [students and staff test positive]. So we were almost, almost able to get halfway there in five, six days,” Goodman said at the board meeting.

In several classes Chopyak said teachers were down to a half a classroom worth of students. These teachers often struggled to both instruct in-person students and assemble takehome lessons for remote

learners. “If you didn’t believe this couldn’t spread between kids, oh my gosh,” she said.

Goodman said the Kootenai Valley Head Start preschool programs in Libby and Troy were shut down owing to a high number of quarantined teachers. The Libby Public Preschool was still open as of the school board meeting.

By contrast, Ruth Vanworth-Rogers, principal of Libby Middle High School, said her campus had made it through the first couple weeks of classes without trouble.

Most of the students in quarantine at the Libby Elementary School were scheduled to return to classes on Sept. 9 or 10.

Goodman said the Labor Day weekend vacation meant that students and staff had one less day of coursework to miss than they would have under normal circumstances.

Moving forward, Goodman told school board members he intended to keep school buildings open as practicable. Nevertheless, school officials had to consider the recurring possibility of running the district with multiple staff members and students in quarantine.

To clarify the terms of the district’s sick leave for employees with COVID-19, school board members approved a memorandum of understanding, which will apply for the rest of the fiscal year. Under the policy, school officials will not record quarantined employees as absent if they can work remotely.

To meet this condition, there must be no need for a substitute, the employee’s remote work be “practical and beneficial” for the district and the employee will have to provide a written explanation if their ability to work remotely is not evident. In classes where a teacher tests positive, Goodman said the entire class is often quarantined. He noted that when an instructor is infected, there’s a high likelihood that health officials will consider their students to be close contacts and ask them to quarantine. There’s also the possibility that a substitute teacher assigned to the classroom could contract the virus from one of the students.

Having a teacher teach their class remotely while quarantining has proven to be a viable solution so far. Goodman said the middle high school also saw success last year with teachers instructing students in classrooms via video conferencing software while a substitute assisted inside the room.

The district also agrees to provide up to 80 hours of paid sick leave at the employee’s regular rate of pay if they are quarantined due to work related exposure to COVID-19. For this term to apply, the employee must provide school officials with documentation of their quarantine within 30 days. The documentation can come in the form of a notice from a health care provider, county health officer or school official who can issue quarantine requests.

School officials will recommend that staff and students follow quarantine guidance passed down from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The guidelines ask that unvaccinated persons quarantine for 10 days — or seven days if they receive a negative test five to seven days after their last exposure to the virus. Vaccinated individuals would not have to quarantine.

A new state law, designed by legislators to prevent discrimination based on vaccine status, prevents school officals from requiring that staff and students follow the recommendations.

Chopyak said some school staff she had spoken with would have liked to have seen firmer guidelines going into the school year. “They’re stressed that last year we went into school with a plan. And this year, the plan seems kind of a little wishywashy,” she said.

Chopyak acknowledged that school districts had faced pressure from the state on how to structure back to school plans.

At the end of August, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced an emergency rule urging districts to give parents the final word on whether children should wear masks in schools. Public school officials at the state level also were unprepared for the sudden surge in coronavirus cases that Montana and the rest of the nation saw in recent weeks, according to Goodman.

Last year, the Montana School Board Association provided Libby Public Schools with a sick leave memorandum of agreement before the start of classes. This year, it had taken until September for the association to provide the memorandum of understanding. “I understand that all of this hit everyone by surprise,” said Goodman.