Schools Struggle with COVID Cases, Masking Dilemmas in Opening Weeks

Lincoln County Public Schools had numerous staff members test positive; Somers Lakeside School Board reversed mask policy

By Micah Drew
Eureka High School. Beacon File Photo

Less than 10 days after the Somers Lakeside Board of Trustees approved Superintendent Joe Price’s recommendation to require all students and staff wear face coverings for the first six weeks of the school year, an emergency board meeting reversed the decision.

Price had changed his initial recommendation for the schools to “strongly recommend” masks to making them mandatory prior to the Aug. 23 meeting.

In an Aug. 24 letter to the district explaining his decision, Price said he had spoken with the Flathead City-County health officer about the significant increase in COVID-19 cases and record number of hospitalizations in the county. In addition, between July 1 and the board meeting on Aug. 17, 168 pediatric cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in the county, 96 between the ages of 4-11.

“The purpose of our Continuity of Services plan is to keep our students and staff safe and healthy so that we may provide high quality, in-person instruction,” Price wrote. “We know attending school face-to-face is better for students academically and socially. I would hate to see us have to quarantine large numbers of students or staff, or even be forced to close schools due to COVID.”

Despite the board initially approving the plan for mandatory masking on Aug. 23, an emergency meeting was called on Sept. 2 to review the policy. The board heard nearly two hours of public comment prior to the vote, and with one board member absent and one abstaining, the final tally was 3-2 to return to a “masks strongly recommended” stance.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they changed their minds … people realized there was never going to be peace in our district if we stayed with a mask requirement,” Price said. “That certainly was the biggest public sentiment.”

“I still feel the same way I did before the vote,” Price added. “My purpose in recommending mandatory masks for the first six weeks was to keep the school open for in-person learning. This just takes away one tool that I think helped us stay open last year.”

The board also discussed what might trigger schools to close this year, and a general consensus among districts is a 20% absentee rate, according to Price.

“I told the board before both votes that whether they decide to require masks or make them optional, we’re going to do the best we can to keep our schools open,” Price said. “We know kids learn better in person than online, and we’re going to do our best to make that happen.”

On Sept. 6, three days into the school year for Lincoln County Public Schools (LCPS) in Eureka, Superintendent Jim Mepham announced on Facebook that 12 staff members had tested positive for COVID-19 over the holiday weekend, including some who were “very sick.” Every building and department had positive cases, and the county health department fully isolated three classrooms after contact tracing.

Schools remained open this week, and in an update on Facebook on Wednesday, Mepham said 70% of families who did not have kids in isolation opted to attend school. A total of 14 staff members were isolated with several more recommended to be quarantined after contact tracing. Sixteen students tested positive and were isolated per health department policy.

As of Friday morning, no athletic events or extracurricular activities had been canceled, although all Friday afternoon bus routes were canceled in the district.

LCPS does not require masking in the classroom, but administrators highly recommend face coverings for all students and staff. Both Mepham and high school principal Joel Graves were among those who tested positive.

“It would be nice to say we could just shut down all the schools and protect everyone, but not everyone has a safe place to go when schools aren’t open,” Graves said. “We’re trying really hard to stay open for those kids.”

Graves said schools closed one time last year, for a few days around the Thanksgiving holidays. While there is no fully remote-learning option in place for the district, he says since all students are issued Chromebooks, they are able to keep up with coursework through Google Classroom and stay in close contact with teachers.

While several teachers were among the staff who had to isolate, Graves said schools were operating as close to normally as possible this week.

“We do have to cover for other people — teachers are used to doing that when necessary,” he said. “The teachers have been amazing.”

“We hope that if we have this spread through us now, it will stabilize us for a while,” Graves added. “It’s always a fear it will get worse, but the bottom line is we have a lot of kids that need this place open.”

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