A box of extra masks sits in the office of Clear Creek Middle School

A box of extra masks sits in the office of Clear Creek Middle School at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Johnson County Schools are not requiring students or staff to wear masks in schools this year, unless the person has been exposed to someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.

A little over one month into the school year in Johnson County, 4% of students (48) and less than 1% of staff members (less than 12) are currently identified as absent due to a positive coronavirus case or a close contact quarantine.

But the number of students and staff actually absent from school buildings is likely lower than what is currently being reported, because under the school district’s new close contact quarantine policy, students and staff identified as close contacts can choose to remain in school buildings while wearing a mask. 

And Superintendent Charles Auzqui said that, so far, between 65% and 70% of students and staff identified as close contact quarantines are choosing to stay in school buildings as long as they are wearing a mask. 

“That was an exciting number,” Auzqui said. “Some districts are only getting 30% participation; we’re getting more. Again, we’re really only about two and a half weeks into it, so we’re still monitoring it and going from there, but feedback from the administrators, and from the nursing staff, kids, that hasn’t been a monitoring issue. Kids are coming. They’re following it. They know it’s short term.” 

The number of students and staff choosing that option has increased in recent weeks, up from about 50% choosing to remain masked and in school buildings just one week after school board trustees approved a new close contact quarantine policy. 

The policy allows students and staff members who have been identified as close contacts of a positive case to remain in school buildings if they wear a mask and complete a mail-in COVID test five days after exposure. 

“The process is working. I’m really excited,” Auzqui said. “We watch our numbers; our numbers seem to stay low and pretty steady, which is good. We always want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

But just because the policy seems to be working doesn’t mean the district isn’t making tweaks it feels will further improve it. 

Beginning immediately, when a student tests positive, all other classroom members who are not vaccinated must either wear a mask or quarantine until all the other classroom members have a negative COVID test. 

Auzqui said the district feels good about implementing this change, because so far this year, no students or staff have tested positive after being a close contact in one of the school buildings. 

The district is also changing its policy around testing in an effort to make it easier for students and parents and to more easily keep track of who is being tested. Students who are identified as a close contact will be provided with a testing kit that they will complete at home. 

After the student completes the at-home test, parents will bring that test to district administrators who will then ship the test to the testing lab. 

The new policy has also made the process of identifying close contacts in school buildings a smoother process for the school nurses, Auzqui said. He is working with the nurses and county public health officer Dr. Mark Schueler daily to make the policy the most effective and safe for students that it can be. 

“We’re monitoring it every day, and we’re gonna tweak it,” Auzqui said. “And I’m hoping by the end of the year ... we’ll have a protocol that will be effective for schools and the community.”

Ryan Hanrahan joined the Bulletin in October 2020 and covers schools, county government and conservation. If you have ideas or feedback, reach out at ryan@buffalobulletin.com.

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