GC school board holds firm without a mask mandate, addresses staffing issues

By Brandon Hurley

Managing Editor

Trust has been placed in the hands of the community while staff members search for quick-strike solutions.

Forty-nine students and 20 staff members across the district have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the school year, a span of roughly four weeks, low enough numbers to convince the local school board to refrain from implementing another mask mandate.

Roughly four percent of the student body population has contracted the virus while 10 percent of faculty has been infected. The staff infection rate has raised concerns for Greene County superintendent Tim Christensen, worried the district may have trouble filling gaps if the trend continues. The district has already struggled to find substitutes at times with several full-time staff members stepping up to fill in when needed, from jobs which include directing bus traffic to sharing lunchroom duties. If problems persist, class cancelations may arise sooner than later.

At times so far this year, as many as three or teachers have been out in a single day, leaving the school district scrambling and increasing stress levels among faculty.

“One thing we may get to, we may have to call off school for a day or two if we don’t have the ability to cover classes,” Christensen said at the Sept. 15 monthly Greene County school board meeting. “That’s the reality of what we are facing right now.”
The Greene County school district pays subs $120 per day though Christensen recommended to the board possibly raising the pay rate to $150 per day, hopefully to entice and attract more temporary teachers.

“(The) biggest challenge is the staff,” Christensen said. “We are still in a position on how we supervise students, how we get them to school. The staff number has been more of an issue than students.”

Christensen then opened a potential mask mandate for discussion among the board. The Greene County community school district issued a school-wide mask mandate last year before lifting it in April, though there was very little, if any pressure to re-implement a mandate at this point in time.
Steve Karber was the first to speak up Wednesday, inquiring about possible vaccination clinics for school-age children, which Christensen said there is potential for. Karber then shared his COVID concerns, without taking an exact stance on either side of the masking issue. He provided a sane, measured voice, in a world starving for peace.

“I think (masks) will have to be something we will have to live with. I would presume most of us don’t want to live with masks the rest of our lives,” Karber said. “Vaccination reduces severity of illness and mortality. (The) biggest question is what is our obligation to frail and elderly to try and prevent them from getting infected? We certainly have students in our classrooms that are at high risk, so how do we protect them? I don’t know whether or that happens at a classroom level.”

The board did agree weekly COVID-19 reports informing the community how the virus is impacting the school district is necessary. Christensen said he also is considering purchasing mobile air purification devices for the elementary school in an effort to help curb spread.

“They appear to be pretty proactive at killing the virus and purifying air,” the superintendent said. “I don’t care whether it’s school, the store, the football game, you’re kidding yourself if there’s not someone asymptomatic around you and you need to take the necessary precautions.
Christensen added, “(We) encourage maintaining personal space, covering (your mouth when you) cough, washing hands and stay home when you’re sick.”

Karber feels it may be too difficult to get an entire community to rally around another mask mandate, believing the choice is ultimately left up to the student and their families. Working together, he said, is key in moving the situation forward.
"I don’t think there is enough consensus in our population to mask on a regular basis,” he said. “Really, there is no reason to mask to try and protect yourself, t’s to try and protect the other person.
I question our ability as a population to say we are going to do a mandate. I would encourage everyone to get vaccinated, and in special instances, have special healthcare recommendations.”

What the issue boils down to, Karber said, is letting families educate their student. If a particular person wants to mask up, it’s ultimately their decision while keeping the lines of communication open. The COVID-19 pandemic remains fluid.

“It’s hard, you’re asking seven year olds to make decisions about protecting each other,” Karber said. “That has to be a whole family decision. It will take a lot of communication.”

The board decided to reconvene if the positivity rate at the schools rises to a concerning level, but for now, no action was taken on implementing a mask mandate.

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