Since the beginning of the school year, our district has required all students and staff to wear a masks or face covering while at school. Since we started the school year attending face-to-face and we weren’t able to consistently socially distance most of the school day, wearing a mask was what we could do to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, which was in the guidance we received from the CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health (IDPH).
When a student or a staff member tests positive for the COVID-19 virus, we are typically notified by either the Dubuque or Delaware County Health Department. We are then asked to help them with contact tracing for these individuals. Contact tracing involves reviewing the individuals the student or staff member was near during the 48 hours prior to the onset of symptoms or a positive COVID test. Knowing that we would be heavily involved in the contact tracing process, we have maintained very strict seating charts in our classrooms and at lunch so that we can quickly determine who was in close contact to the person who tested positive for the virus. When positive cases were at the highest levels in November and December, the contact tracing process took up a significant amount of time for the staff at each school.
Prior to September 29, 2020, once the list of people who were in close contact was completed, those people were notified of the exposure to a positive COVID-19 case, and they were sent home to quarantine for 14 days. Even though we required that everyone wear a mask at school each day, anyone in close contact had to quarantine for two full weeks.
In late September, the Iowa Department of Public Health released new guidance regarding the requirements for quarantining due to exposure to a person who tests positive for COVID-19. The new guidance stated that when the individual who tested positive and the person who was in close contact were appropriately masked, the person who was in close contact was not required to quarantine at all. We were still required to do the contact tracing but the exposed individual was only required to self-monitor for symptoms, they were not required to quarantine for 14 days.
This change in the requirements for quarantining students and staff significantly changed the number of people who could stay in school. Prior to this change from the state, our district was averaging anywhere from 250 to 300 students who were home due to state mandated quarantine. One week after the IDPH made this rule change, this number had decreased to an average of 50 to 100 kids. This change allowed more students to be in school. Appropriately wearing a mask at school now prevented unnecessary quarantining of students and staff.
Now, it’s May 5th, and we are still in school. We have not had to shut down any school due to the virus. That is something that very few people would have thought was possible when we started school in August. What we have been doing has worked to keep our kids in school.
If you look at the district’s COVID Dashboard, you will see that we currently have four (4) positive cases in the district. You might be wondering why we continue to require students and staff to wear a mask at school if there are so few cases in our schools. The reason is that even one positive case at school could impact our kids in a negative way. For example, let’s say that we stop requiring masks at school. On Saturday, May 22nd, a high school student who has been attending school each day tests positive for COVID-19. Since this student takes six classes each day, we are required to do the contact tracing for the previous 48 hours to determine who was in close contact with this student. In a typical high school classroom, close contact would occur with about 5 students each period. We are also required to contact trace for lunch and any extracurricular activities. Lunch would typically include an additional 3 students who were in close contact with the student who tested positive for the virus. If the student was involved in an extracurricular activity, more students would be considered in close contact, and more would be added to the list for contact tracing. If that same student rides the bus each day, another 10 students would be added to that list of kids who are required to quarantine due to exposure. So, based on this one positive test in that high school, at least 33 students would be on the list of people who were in close contact (many more might be added depending on transportation and extracurricular activities). In this example, since we weren’t requiring masks at school, at least 33 students would be required to be at home on quarantine for 8 days to 10 days. If any of those students who were now on quarantine were seniors, they would not be able to attend graduation. Any student who participates in an extracurricular activity would have to sit out due to quarantine as well, including district and state events.
In the example listed above, if we had continued to require masks at school, only the students who eat lunch together or were exposed through an extracurricular activity would be required to quarantine. In our schools, students don’t wear masks at lunch and are unable to socially distance at that time, so the three students who sat by the student who tested positive, would have to remain on quarantine as directed by the IDPH. Simply put, wearing masks allows us to keep more kids in school and allows kids to continue to participate in extracurricular activities.
The IDPH and the Dubuque County Health Department directs us in our contact tracing process as well as in determining who will be required to quarantine and for how long. The rules that we follow are given to us by the state; they are not our rules. By continuing to require masks through the end of the year, we can provide our students with the greatest opportunity to be in school and participate in events.
If you researched the effectiveness of masks online, you would be able to find many resources that support masks, and you would be able to find many resources that say that masks are ineffective. At this point, the research isn’t why we will continue to require masks. It is very simple, we require masks because the state had determined that by doing this, more kids will be able to avoid being quarantined at home. Requiring masks isn’t about anything more than doing what we can to keep kids in school.
Rick Colpitts, Superintendent
Western Dubuque Community School District