The Fairfield Area School Board voted on Monday evening to make masks mandatory during times of ‘high’ or ‘very high’ COVID-19 transmission, even after the state mandate is discontinued. The board also welcomed its new members and held its annual reorganization meeting.
Jack Liller, Kelly Christiano, Matthew DeGennaro, Candace Ferguson-Miller, Richard Phillip and Theodore Sayres Jr. were sworn in. Members Jennifer Holz, Lashay Kalathas and Lauren Clark have terms that do not expire until 2023.
Holz was made president following a 7-2 vote and Liller secured the vice president’s seat with a vote of 6-3. Both Holz and Liller will hold one-year terms.
Phillip was appointed as the Pennsylvania School Boards Association legislative chairperson.
The board voted to change its health and safety plan following recommendations by administrators in order to help reduce the number of ill and quarantined children missing school in Fairfield following exposures.
District Nurse Kristi Ebaugh said Fairfield currently does not follow CDC recommendations regarding quarantining. It also does not follow guidance about social distancing due to a lack of space.
Ebaugh said making masks mandatory during times of higher rates of transmission would help keep children in the classroom.
“In last two weeks alone, we had to quarantine 37 students,” Ebaugh said. “It’s been because of one of the students not wearing a mask or time at lunch or sports. If there were no masks at all, we would have had to quarantine 206 students. That’s 206 students K-12 who would not be in school.”
Prior to the mask mandate, a higher percentage of Fairfield children tested positive for COVID-19 than they do now during the mandate, according to Ebaugh.
She said that in her children’s classrooms, only about three children continued to wear a mask when they were optional.
“That, to me, speaks about what the parents want,” Ferguson-Miller said.
The new plan keeps masks required but provides more flexibility on quarantining procedures.
Mask exemptions will still be allowed if the parent, school nurse and school administrator sign the paper for it.
Interim Superintendent Larry Redding said a conversation informing parents about the risks will happen before anything was signed.
“Our intent is encouraging the continued use of masks because it has this documentation in Fairfield that says the cases of infection are lower when more students are wearing masks,” Redding said. “So having the conversation, ‘Is this what you want for your child, to be exposed to a higher level of infection, and do you recognize the risks by signing that you are taking on that additional parental responsibility?’ And if you say, ‘Yes, I recognize that,’ there’s no objection from the administrator. But it’s not just ‘mail us in a for.’ You need to recognize your son is at a higher risk if he doesn’t wear a mask.”
Phillip said exposure can happen outside school. Ebaugh pointed out that there are no other environments were large groups of children are kept in close contact for several hours a day, increasing their risk of infection.
“That’s why these recommendations are here,” Redding said. “We know we are putting kids at risk by being close, by being there for 90 minutes or seven and a half hours or whatever, and we have an obligation to do what we can to provide the best, safest environment that’s going to translate back to kids staying in the classroom. That’s really the context that we need to look at this. We can’t spread them out.”
Some board members wanted to make masks optional regardless of the transmission level. Ebaugh said that based on data from the last time masks were optional, the number of quarantined students would spike. Along with keeping children out of school, it would mean far more work for staff, she said. Because of masks, she only had to quarantine 37 students instead of 206 in the past two weeks.
“As it stands with the 15 positives that we had on Friday and Saturday, I worked for about 13 hours over the weekend,” Ebaugh said. “I worked until 10 on Friday night, 6 p.m. on Thursday night. There’s no way I could call 206 students.”
Some board members questioned why the mandate should continue on a local basis rather than allowing parents the option to decide if their child should wear a mask.
“We had none of those numbers and we sent kids to school without masks or with the option, and now we know what that does,” Holz said. “Something about this has to change based on those numbers.”
Liller said when the optional masking policy was approved before the mandate was in effect, the number of cases were trending downward in the summer. The rate of spread is now higher.
Ebaugh asked the board to use the district’s data when making its decision.
“I think the state allowed boards to make the decision and we saw how that went in September and they did the mask mandate,” Ebaugh said. “Now they’re trying to give it back to us. We have all this data. I think we should make an educational decision based on all of the data that we have, which has definitely changed since the beginning of August.”
The new quarantine policy is significantly relaxed from CDC guidelines. Parents informed of their child’s exposure to someone in school with COVID-19 will have the choice to quarantine if their child does not exhibit symptoms. Anyone who is exposed and returns to school within 14 days of the exposure will have to wear a mask, regardless of mask exemptions.
The plan does contain a caveat: “FASD will return to quarantine requirements if more than one positive case is noted in the same classroom within 14 days or if there is an increased trend in positive cases at school.”
The choice to quarantine only applies to exposure that occurs in school. Students exposed elsewhere will have to follow CDC quarantine guidelines.
Two proposed amendments to the plan failed. The first would have removed requirements for audience members and spectators in indoor venues filled to 75% or higher capacity to wear a mask. It failed 5-4. The second would have made masks fully optional and failed 6-3.
The plans without any amendments passed 6-3.
The board approved the hire of a temporary elementary interventionist for the 2021-22 school year.
Administrators told the board that the pandemic has resulted in a significantly higher need for intervention specialists. Even with this position added, many students will still not receive intervention. The board discussed the possibility of adding another position for reading and math intervention.
Fourth-grade teacher Sarah Baugh and her students provided a presentation about their recent embryology project. The students broke into small groups to show their posters to board members. They then went to a separate room to make the same presentation to their parents or guardians.
There was no public comment.
The board’s next regular meeting will be held at 7 p.m. Monday, Jan. 10 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.