Lynne Hermansen
Special To The Gardner News
Gardner Edgerton School Board members voted 6-0 Tuesday night to allow 9 through 12 graders an option to wear masks or not starting November 18.
Students grade 7 and 8 will have the option beginning December 1st after the Thanksgiving break. They will have to wear masks outside their individual classrooms if they attend a school building shared with younger students.
Board members decided quarantines and isolation cases must stay below four percent of a school building’s enrollment in order to keep the optional masking.
Johnson County still requires buildings with sixth graders must maintain mask wearing.
Pam Stranahan, superintendent, said if the cases go above four percent again they would go back to mask requirements for two weeks.
Ryan Colston, youth and community development director, presented a review of Covid Test-to-Stays for the district along with the first semester Covid dashboards.
Colston said numbers in October for Covid cases with students and parents were low.
“It’s refreshing,” he said.
A small uptick occurred for November, he said most likely from Halloween gatherings, but the numbers had been slowly trending down since August.
Dr. Jody Marshall, human resources director, said not all absences were related to Covid.
“The numbers are trending in the right direction,” he said.
Stranahan said they had been having conversations with the state and applied for grant money to purchase the Test-to-Stay Covid tests in order to allow optional masking and a lab waiver.
“Other area districts are doing the same,” she said.
Tests are provided to staff and students who have been exposed.
Colston said if a test was negative, students and staff get to stay in school per the Johnson County Health Department rules. “The goal is to keep students healthy and in school,” he said.
The testing location would be at the USD 231 Administration Building’s front parking lot Monday through Friday 6:30 to 7:45 a.m.
Colston said staff and students would have to wait off-site for the call with their test results and procedural instructions.
The tests take approximately 15 minutes to finalize and only students with consent health forms on file with the district would be eligible, he said.
Colston said the tests aren’t mandatory and for unvaccinated staff and students, but if the test wasn’t taken and someone was positive they would have to follow the original quarantine protocols implemented by the district.
“If they are symptomatic they will have to seek a test from a medical facility,” he said.
Brandon Parks, board member, said testing is still optional and up to parents.
Robin Strentz, board member, said she wanted to thank Colston for looking into the testing program that board member Lana Sutton had suggested a few months prior.
“Thank you guys for all the work you did,” she said. “I appreciate you doing your best to keep everyone happy.”
Sutton also thanked Colston for his thorough research on the test requirements and procedures.
“Thank you for looking into this because different school districts around us are doing this,” she said. “It just adds another option.”
Stranahan said they had a system and the test results have to be provided to the Kansas Department of Health and Education and the county health department.
“But they could be back in school as soon as that afternoon,” she said.
Colston said there would be very clear communication with building staffs if a student or staff member had tested negative and were returning the same afternoon.
Kristen Schultz, board member, said when the testing idea had been originally proposed the biggest concerns had been about the test costs and efficiency because of high case numbers at the time. “Now with the grant money we would have zero cost,” she said.
Stranahan said they were training and paying staff to help with the tests and would need 35 people to voluntarily sign up to implement the tests.
Schultz said she wanted to know if they had the ability to see the vaccination rate numbers for staff and students.
Colston said they only have that information on file through voluntarily completed medical forms. “The true goal is to keep kids from missing school,” he said.
Schultz said she had concerns about them asking more of staff members and what if no one volunteered to assist the testing program.
Colston said they would revisit at that time and also reevaluate if and when numbers started spiking again. “We are going to have these chunks again after gatherings,” he said. “But hopefully the numbers continue to trend down.”
Colston said that sometimes the test to stay tests could take a day to receive results, and it was still possible for staff or students to miss a day of school.
Katie Williams, new board member, said she had questions about potential exposures. “Do they stay home or test daily during the incubation period,” she said.
Williams said she also wanted to know how they would handle students who have younger siblings.
Colston said if an older student had been exposed at school they would do the test to stay protocol and the younger sibling would be fine to stay in class, but if the exposure had been from outside school all kids in the household would take the test to stay.
Rob Shippy, board president, said he was in favor of letting all 7 – 12 graders have the option for being unmasked. “With seeing the numbers going down I think this is a good option,” he said.
Stranahan said they had a different perspective now versus how the school year started with high cases and they were in a much better spot now.
Schultz said she still had concerns at the younger grade levels and the pressures staff might face having to enforce masks and mitigate different grades at the middle school level.
“I’m trying to be on board to give them a break,” she said. “The test to stay might be the middle ground.”
Parks said 7 and 8 graders would still have to wear masks outside their respective classrooms if they shared a building with younger grades.
The district still has to be able to enforce masks for those who still have to wear them, Schultz said.
“We have to be extra diligent because we lost a level of safety,” she said.
Schultz said she would feel better if they already had the grant and tests.
Shippy said they weren’t seeing the huge spikes they were seeing last year.
“We will see if middle school is not working and make adjustments,” he said. “We will never progress out of this if we don’t make changes, and it’s encouraging to give this a shot.”
Parks said they were giving the choice back to parents.
“We are putting the choice in the hands of parents,” he said. “It’s another option to get kids back in school faster.”