Two proposals to loosen or abolish mask requirements failed during the Fairfield Area school board meeting on Monday night.
School board member Candace Ferguson-Miller made a motion to allow children with mask exemptions to continue to attend school without a mask after an in-school exposure to coronavirus.
According to Kristi Ebaugh, the district school nurse, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Pennsylvania Department of Health recommend that students exposed to COVID-19 quarantine at home for five days, followed by wearing a mask to school for five days.
Fairfield’s health and safety plan already goes against those guidelines. The district instead allows students to meet the quarantine requirement by masking at school for 10 days after an in-school exposure, regardless of whether they have a mask exemption. It is not an option for a student exposed to a family member with COVID-19.
Ebaugh said students can test, but the results are only valid for 48 hours. Then, students exposed to the virus will need to take another test.
“I think we need to think about all the students in the classroom and about the level of spread we’re at right now,” Ebaugh said.
Board member Ryan Phillip seconded Ferguson-Miller’s motion, which failed 7-2.
Phillip then made a motion to lift any mask requirements at all, arguing that if the Pennsylvania Department of Health cannot mandate masks, the district also has no power to require them.
That motion was seconded by Ferguson-Miller and failed 6-3. Board Treasurer Lashay Kalathas supplied the third vote.
Ebaugh said the district is close to having enough cases for the state Department of Health to recommend closing schools.
From Jan. 18 through Monday, there were 23 cases of COVID-19 in the elementary school, 17 in the middle school and 13 in the high school, she said.
“Our numbers have skyrocketed,” Ebaugh said. “It’s pretty bad.”
Phillip asked Superintendent Thomas Haupt whether he would close the school if the state Department of Health told him to.
Haupt said he would follow the guidance of medical experts from the CDC and Pennsylvania Department of Health.
“You’re not going to change the trajectory of the virus,” Phillip said, adding that all the district can do is have janitors clean the schools and provide a clean space for the children.
“It’s so much more than that,” Board President Jennifer Holz said. “It really is. It’s about layering the mitigation efforts. It’s not about one thing… it’s multiple methods of mitigating this virus.”
Holz and Kalathas looked at lower rates of positive COVID-19 tests in other districts and said Fairfield should do more to attempt to prevent transmission.
After the failed votes to remove mask requirements, Holz asked the administrative staff to look into more options.
“The directive to Mr. Haupt and his team is that we will explore every mitigation effort possible for this district,” Holz said. “That if we are to make changes to our health and safety plan, we are taking into consideration every possible thing that we can do within the building to keep the kids safe.”
The meeting marked Haupt’s fourth day as superintendent in the district.
The board agreed to have Dr. Larry Redding, the board’s former interim superintendent, serve as a consultant. Redding’s contract will extend through February at the rate of $450 per day. Redding will work about two days per week, though he may sometimes need to work three days, according to Haupt.
During the time for public comment, half a dozen community members spoke against mask mandates or questioned quarantine protocol. One individual who identified herself as a nurse in a cancer center and an ER volunteer spoke in favor of masks.
Despite the bleak update on the district’s COVID-19 cases, Thomas Weaver, the district’s business manager, provided a positive update.
Crystal Heller, the district’s food service supervisor, has done an “excellent job” ensuring the district has a supply of food and other materials, according to Weaver. School supply shortages have made national headlines due to global supply chain issues.
“Early on a number of months ago, we felt that was going to be a big problem,” Weaver said. “She’s been able to reach out and work with different vendors, and she’s done an excellent job. We actually have not run into any problems in the last few weeks with product or food product, and she’s been able to basically continue with all of the menus that she has prepared… Many of you know that dealing with a supply chain, that’s not an easy thing today.”
The board will hold its next regular meeting at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 14 in the district board room. Meetings are also livestreamed on the district’s YouTube channel.
Imari Scarbrough 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.