Students and staff will not be required to wear masks in Johnson County School buildings when they return to school later this month. That is according to a press release sent Monday from the Johnson County COVID Task Force.
The task force comprises representatives from Johnson County School District, Johnson County Healthcare Center, Johnson County Public Health, Sheridan College in Johnson County, Johnson County Emergency Management and Johnson County.
According to the press release, “The safety and health of staff, students and community remains to be a top priority for the district as we get ready to start the year.”
The district has yet to receive guidance from the State Department of Education, but school leaders were scheduled to meet with state health officials this week for more discussion and guidance.
In an interview Monday, Johnson County School District Superintendent Charles Auzqui said the district would consult federal and state guidelines and recommendations, and make decisions about contact tracing, isolation and quarantining based on “whatever guidelines the local county health officer establishes. We want to make the best decisions for our students and their families based on what’s going on right here on the ground. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all-response.”
Should state or federal requirements be established, Auzqui said, the district would follow those requirements.
The press release and Auzqui said that anyone who is vaccinated who has been identified as being in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID would not need to be quarantined. Similarly, according to the press release, if “both individuals (the person with COVID and the contact person) were wearing a mask in a school setting, (that person) will not be required to quarantine, but to self-monitor for symptoms.”
The press release does not stipulate what conditions would necessitate a mandatory quarantine for an unvaccinated individual who was in contact with a person who was COVID-positive if both people were not wearing masks. The district does anticipate that some students will be required to quarantine during the course of the school year.
“We still have the ability to teach remotely,” Auzqui said. “We’re hoping it’s going to be very minimal — the number of kids who are actually out of school.”
Among school-age children, only those age 12 and up are eligible to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Because of that, in guidance for returning to school released last week, the CDC wrote, “masks should be worn indoors by all individuals (age 2 and older) who are not fully vaccinated.” The CDC went on to recommend that schools use multiple prevention strategies, including “vaccination promotion, consistent and correct mask use, physical distancing, screening testing to promptly identify cases, ventilation, handwashing and respiratory etiquette, staying home when sick and getting tested, contact tracing in combination with isolation and quarantine and cleaning and disinfection” to protect people who are not fully vaccinated.
Auzqui said that the district would continue to emphasize proper hand sanitizing and “doing the things we know that work to make the learning environment as safe as possible.”
By federal order and regardless of the mask policy at school, passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems. However, according to the press release, “the federal requirements of masks on federal transportation (buses) are being reviewed at the state level and when more information or direction is given, the staff, students, parents, and community will be informed.”
“The district will continue to recommend only at this time that masks and social distancing protocol take place when feasible,” the press release said.
Auzqui said that the task force and district remain committed to “doing what’s best for the community and ensuring that community is safe,” but he acknowledged that when dealing with the coronavirus, safety is a moving target.
“The Johnson County COVID Task Force is in consensus that whether masks will be required at some point throughout the school year will depend on a variety of factors, including the number of cases in the community, the number of students and staff in isolation or quarantine at one time, and the number of people hospitalized,” the press release said.
Last school year, the state required masks in schools when social distancing could not be maintained. In April, Johnson County school board trustees sought and received a variance to permit students and staff to not wear masks in school buildings. That request followed weeks of declining case counts in the county.
“We are no longer dealing with an emergency. COVID is something we must now learn to live with,” said Dr. Mark Schueler, Johnson County public health officer. “We can expect an increase in cases with the start of the school year, and we will proceed by making careful, thoughtful decisions.”