Students at Warrenton High School are once again required to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
In response to a rising number of COVID cases and subsequent quarantines, the Warren County R-III School Board voted to revise its pandemic protocol during its monthly meeting on Sept. 9.
Among the changes is the inclusion of the high school in a policy that states that students will be required to wear masks if the number of positive cases in the building exceeds 1 percent of the student population. Previously, this protocol applied only to the middle school and elementary schools.
“The general consensus was we need to do something to keep as many kids in school as possible,” said Superintendent Dr. Gregg Klinginsmith.
As of Sept. 10, the R-III school district had 599 students quarantined, along with another 79 absent because of testing positive for COVID. The high school had 20 positive cases and another 145 students quarantined as close contacts.
The policy change passed with a 4-2 vote, with Jeff Schneider and Deanna Zwyers opposed. The 1-percent protocol now includes all buildings in the district, with the exception of the Early Childhood Center, which houses 3- to 4-year-olds, many of whom have special needs.
“I want to push back against Early Childhood being included,” said Board Secretary Sarah Janes. “I’m concerned about mandating masks on children that are 3 to 4 years old with special needs.”
“I think the idea is that some of those kids that age struggle to wear masks correctly,” added Klinginsmith. “Some also have medical conditions that keep them from being able to wear masks.”
The board’s decision to tighten mask requirements were met with negative feedback from the community, as seven patrons spoke in opposition to the mask mandate. The parents rallied for the freedom to make the decision for their own families and offered data challenging the efficacy and highlighting potential risks of masks.
“We’re the parents of these children, and all we are asking for is a choice,” said Bradley Jones, who led off nearly 40 minutes of public comments. “I’m just asking for my own choice for (my children).”
Jones was among several patrons who also spoke at the August board meeting.
“I am only asking that we be given the same liberty to decide what’s best for our children as well,” added Carolyn Spraggs.
Parents also expressed concern over the abruptness of the changes, as the board had called an emergency meeting the previous week to address the surging rates of COVID within the district. It was at that time the board voted to lower the middle and elementary school mask mandate threshold from 3 percent of students testing positive to 1 percent instead.
“This is not transparency,” said Jamie Montes. “Every one of you went behind the backs of the people who voted for you. Shouldn’t all the votes be in some sort of public forum?”
In response, Klinginsmith said the district will take measures to be more communicative about meeting changes in the future, including sending out district-wide messages to inform patrons.
Board President Ginger Schenck said there was a sense of urgency once the board realized the original criteria it had established was not keeping students in the classroom.
“We thought that we made a logical and well-thought-out decision when we set the rate at 3-percent mandate,” said Schenck. “Last year none of our buildings got to that point. We miscalculated how much this had spread, and I take responsibly for that.”
“Once we got into it and realized how many kids are quarantined with that number (3 percent), we determined a change was needed,” added Klinginsmith. “That was becoming quite alarming, particularly at the middle school, when there were a couple hundred kids quarantined. That number is way too high and we needed to drop that threshold down.”
As of Tuesday, the only school not surpassing the 1-percent mark was the Alpha Academy, which had just one positive COVID case. While cases at the high school and Warrior Ridge Elementary have been on the rise, the buildings first impacted — Black Hawk Middle School and Rebecca Boone Elementary — seem to be on a downward trend.
“It looks like as soon as the Delta variant comes in, it leaves,” said Klinginsmith. “It does take time to work its way through the community, but hopefully it moves itself out of the community, too. When you look at other counties that have gone through this, you do see a much steeper spike and decline, so hopefully that’s what we experience as well.”
Even if COVID positive rates drop below 1 percent in a building, the mask mandate will stay in place until the school board meets again and votes to lift it. Typically the board meets twice a month, once for regular open session and two weeks later for a public work session. The next scheduled open session is Oct. 14.
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