During its meeting Monday evening, the Fairfield Area school board discussed revisiting its health and safety plan as cases of the novel coronavirus continue to rise in Adams County. No changes to the plan were made during the meeting.
Kristi Ebaugh, the district school nurse, said cases have risen in the district. Since November, three students have suffered serious effects, including one with Covid-induced epilepsy and seizures, one with an enlarged heart, and one requiring oxygen for a week after being released from the hospital, according to Ebaugh.
“It’s not that our students aren’t getting sick, because they are,” Ebaugh said. “And this is what we have now.”
Board Vice President Jack Liller expressed alarm.
“We’re all just acting like it’s sniffles and they’re right back to school,” Liller said. “It’s not that. While three is a small percentage, one is too many.”
Ebaugh passed out copies of three emails she’d received from concerned parents or guardians, honoring their wishes to remain anonymous. She said she receives multiple emails each week from parents uncomfortable with the situation.
“We are not socially distancing,” Ebaugh said. “We’re now allowing people to be without masks. And we have a lot of people uncomfortable and afraid to speak up, and I think that’s a really sad position that we put our community in, that we have some people who are very loud about how they feel but they are making people who are uncomfortable in this situation feel like they can’t speak.”
On Monday, 85 students and staff members at the elementary school were absent, above the five-day average of 65 absences per day.
Of the 85, 35 had tested positive or had been exposed to Covid outside of school. In one class, 17 students had to quarantine after several students in the class became ill, and six had tested positive or were experiencing symptoms as of Monday. The last nine students had opted to stay home following an exposure to someone with Covid, according to Ebaugh.
At the middle school, 27 students and staff members were out on Monday, with 25 either due to positive tests or exposure to someone with Covid and the other two because of experiencing symptoms after being around someone with Covid at school.
The high school had 29 students out, with 21 confirmed ill or around someone with Covid outside of school and the other eight showing symptoms after being exposed at school.
Illnesses aren’t just affecting the children. Covid has caused staffing challenges as well. Principals reported that covering classes has become more difficult. Justin Hoffacker, principal of Fairfield Area Middle School, said four – or 20% – of his teachers were out on Monday.
The board initially reviewed its health and safety plan to discuss whether to shorten its isolation and quarantine period requirements in light of the latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Ebaugh said that when a child is exposed to Covid at home, she sends an email to parents with the Pennsylvania Department of Health blind-copied on the same email. The parent’s options are included but Fairfield’s options are different than what the Department of Health requires.
“The Department of Health at any time could see these two attachments and reprimand us for our decisions,” Ebaugh said.
The emails alone consume much of her time, she said.
Liller said he’d heard other districts’ nurses were not performing contact tracing. Ebaugh said it was a rumor, adding that she had heard the same thing and contacted other districts and confirmed they were doing it.
Liller addressed Ebaugh and the principals.
“What is your thoughts– all of you– how close are we to this thing falling apart with teachers, kids per classroom?” Liller asked. “Honest opinions on what is going on.”
Ebaugh told him “it’s already falling apart,” especially as the district only has two nurses.
“By this point in the school year, I usually have screenings in the elementary K-4 completed,” she said. “I’ve not even started planning those. That’s required by the state and we don’t have any Covid exceptions for that this year. So we will lose funding for not completing screenings if it doesn’t get done.”
At the high school, most screenings have not begun, she said.
“We’re averaging anywhere between 25-65 health room visits, then 22 medication passes, on top of Covid calls,” Ebaugh said. “And today, I just looked back and had almost 250 emails today related to Covid.”
There was some debate about whether masks make a significant difference in whether people are infected.
Ebaugh said 11 students out of 93 unmasked children tested positive for Covid while only seven students out of 1,000 masked children tested positive, making a “big difference.”
Some board members asked what else the district could do to help.
The board directed the administration to remind parents not to send their child to school if anyone in the household tests positive for Covid or if the child exhibits even minor symptoms. Parents will also receive a reminder about how to check their children for symptoms.
In the previous week, there had been multiple cases of students attending school even though they had family members sick with Covid, and only two of those children were wearing masks when they went to school, Ebaugh said.
Ebaugh also requested the board provide more information about mask requirements to parents. Those who choose not to mask their children should communicate the exception in the case of exposure, Ebaugh said, adding that it is “confusing” for children who go from wearing no mask to suddenly needing to mask following an exposure. Young children may not understand what an exposure is and some cry when told they have to wear a mask, Ebaugh said.
Board President Jennifer Holz encouraged the board to discuss the health and safety plan.
“We can agree to not make any changes to our plan, but the truth of the matter is that, in our attempt to come to a compromise with members of the community and their feelings about the health and safety plan and masking, and also respect the feelings of those who wish to keep children as safe as possible under any circumstances, whether it’s masking (or) distancing, we have created this plan that now has us in crisis mode,” Holz said. “So let’s keep that in mind. This isn’t good enough right now. The entire community, including our school district, is in really bad shape, guys.”
The board decided to wait until it received more information about Covid in the area and physicians’ recommendations before potentially taking action. The board could call an emergency meeting before its next regularly scheduled meeting.
One individual spoke during the time for public comment to state he was against a mask mandate.
The board was apprised of a $1,000 donation received from AmVets Post 72 for use by the Fairfield Chamber Choir.
Imari Scarbrough, Reporter, is a freelance journalist. She was a staff newspaper reporter for five years before becoming a freelancer in 2017. She has written on crime, environmental issues, severe weather events, local and regional government and more.
You can visit her website at ImariJournal.com.