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Lee Schools: Numbers will dictate mask policies, COVID protocols

By MEGHAN BRADBURY - | Sep 3, 2021

The School District of Lee County will monitor a minimum of four metrics to determine when it can relax its emergency mask mandate.

A special Facebook live was held for staff Thursday night, which touched upon the numbers assessment that will be used to relax some of the COVID protocols, including the current mask mandate that went into place on Sept. 1 for 30 days.

Those metrics include the number of staff members out due to a COVID-related issue, which can be a positive test, isolated or exposed; the number of students out for the same reasons; the positivity rate within the community and the hospital bed capacity with Lee Health.

“When you put those metrics together, both our internal metrics and Department of Health metrics and the Lee Health metrics, and we continue to look at additional metrics that we can include, it’s through that triangular piece of data that we will be able to come to the best notion of protocols that can be relaxed at which time periods,” Superintendent Dr. Ken Savage said.

Savage began the Facebook live staff briefing Thursday night with thanking staff for what they are doing, as it has not been easy.

“It has only been more challenging by the pace of the changing health protocols,” he said. “We want you to know that we understand your frustrations and we hear your concerns. As superintendent I take responsibility for the change in health protocols. The reinstating of the mask mandate is, in my heart, the right thing to do for our community and health partners at this time. I hope the restrictions can be relaxed in 30 days and we are working hard to analyze data trends to support a move towards a more conventional school year. Please know we can get through this together as a district team.”

The district sent out a form to its employees on Wednesday for the Facebook live event. Those forms were reviewed and the prominent themes were selected for Thursday’s 30-minute discussion.

Mask mandate

The first question focused on why the district implemented its mask mandate and what metrics are being used to determine what protocols can be relaxed after 30 days.

Savage said the community is in midst of a surge unlike what has ever been seen before.

“We know this because of how it has inundated our hospital system,” he said. “The hospital system has been doing a lot of communication with us in terms of where their current status is. We also put into place all of our recommended mitigation factors from last year. The mask piece really was just one of many others.”

Savage reiterated that the No. 1 thing people can do, if they are able, is to get vaccinated, as medical professionals urge.

“It is so important that the people that can get the vaccine do get the vaccine,” he said. “That is something our medical partners unequivocally have said is the top mitigation strategy. But, however, knowing a lot of folks have chosen not to get the vaccine for whatever reason, or they don’t have that available, or maybe a child 12 and younger, and that is the challenge. So, all those other mitigation factors work together to try to help keep us as safe as possible.”

The vaccine is broadly available, but is not required of district employees, Savage said.

Knowing that the numbers are incredibly high despite of all the other factors in play, made masks a necessary addition to the comprehensive mitigation situation, he said.

Ramification for not wearing masks

Objections to requiring masks also was addressed.

Compensation and Labor Relations Director William Rothenberg said in situations where an employee may have an issue of wearing a mask due to medical reasons they are able to request an ADA accommodation. They are required to provide medical certification, which goes through an individual review and assessment, he said.

“There have already been a number of those requests submitted and they are being reviewed in an expedited manner,” Rothenberg said. “In a normal year we receive about 20 of those. Last year I believe we received 400. The processing of that takes time, but there are dedicated staff that respond to those requests.”

If there is a staff member who refuses to comply with the mask mandate there are steps the district will take. The first step is with the site -based administrator, who should be having the conversation with the person with support and assistance. He said the situation is treated differently if a person forgot or does not have a mask, to someone who is refusing to follow the directive. Progressive discipline will apply if there is insubordination.

The next question answered how staff deals with students who are not wearing a mask.

Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jeff Spiro said if a student is refusing to wear a mask, certainly they do not want to get into a power struggle with the student, so the teacher will report it to the child’s principal.

“Let them talk with the parent. Let them talk with the student. You go on worrying about the teaching and learning of the day and let the administration handle those particular complexities around masks,” Spiro said.

Teacher quarantined, or tests positive

Rothenberg said they have a memorandum in place with both the Support Association of Lee County and the Teacher Association of Lee County, which now allows the use for sick leave for COVID purposes, which dates back to July 1, 2021.

“If someone has a quarantine situation where they are being directed by their employer to stay home they are able to use up to 10 days for a single incidence of COVID sick leave,” Rothenberg said.

Finance Director Ami Desamours said that although it was a memorandum with both unions it applies to all district personnel. She said regardless of what employee class they are in, if an employee has a situation where they are COVID positive, or directed to quarantine, then they would receive up to those 10 days for a single incident.

Notification process for exposure, COVID positive

Chief Engagement Officer Lauren Stillwell addressed the COVID notification process for when a teacher has been exposed to a positive COVID case. In such cases they will get notification of a positive case, which most of the time will come through the COVID Incidence Report that the district collects.

“That will go to our COVID Command Center. Then the school sends the close contact list to us for anyone that is within six feet for 15 minutes or more. Once we get that from the school we send that to the DOH. The DOH does a quick case investigation. They will look that over and send us back the list of exposures,” Stillwell said. “Then we will notify those who are exposures.”

She said one of the largest hurdles is home testing because now such tests are available and prevalent.

“Per the Department of Health executive order, if someone is doing a home test, it has to be a home test that is either reported to a laboratory, reported through a mobile app, or done with a medical provider,” Stillwell said. “A lot of these home tests are not one of those, so in cases like that sometimes we are being notified of tests, but if we cannot confirm that it is a positive test, or the DOH it is not reported to them, then we can’t quarantine. They cannot isolate because they can only do that based on a positive test.”

In other words, if they can not get a positive from the DOH then they cannot use the quarantine sick-time benefit.

Within the first 14 days of the school year, Stillwell said they had above 6,000 CRI reports, compared to 10,000 in the first four months of last year.

“That has put us behind as a district. I know people are quick to look and say it is the Department of Health, but in all honesty it is us, too. We are working to hire more staff in the COVID Command Center to be able to process those forms faster,” Stillwell said.

Stillwell also discussed the protocols that take place for when a class is quarantined. The district will take into account the number of students who are positive and the number of students that are exposed, which is a conversation between the DOH and the COVID Command Center.

“When we have one or two positive students in a classroom, we notify the DOH, and then the DOH will do contact tracing immediately,” Stillwell said. “Especially in our younger grades and in our ESE classrooms when it’s really hard to keep all those students apart anyway, so that will go into the factor of making the decision to quarantine the classroom.”

If the district knows that they have the ability to social distance and they have kids who were not within six feet of one who has tested positive they will do everything they can to keep that classroom open.

Another question stemmed around when a person is or is not vaccinated and has to quarantine. Stillwell said those who are vaccinated are not subject to quarantine as long as they are asymptomatic.

“The CDC updated their guidance that they do recommend testing,” Stillwell said. “If you are fully vaccinated and exposed, the CDC recommends that you get tested to see if you are positive. At that point positive protocols would kick in where we would want to stay out.”

For students, the district is not allowed to keep them out of school if they are fully vaccinated and exposed.

Staffing shortages

The next question, how the district is helping to alleviate staffing shortages due to required quarantining, was directed at Spiro.

“Our No. job is to support our schools. We know that you are on the front lines and you are dealing with the crisis on a daily basis. So, our job at the district is to provide as much support as we can,” he said. “So what does that mean? What normally happens is our principals will contact the executive director the night before school begins, or morning of before school begins to let him or her know that they are short X number of teachers and particular subject areas that they might be short in.”

The district then redirects its certified staff to go out and support the schools to make sure that classrooms are covered. Spiro said they know that classrooms are doubling up and teachers are giving up their planning periods.

“There are a number of mitigations that are happening in the school and we want to be a part of that solution. So, our principals are working directly with the executive directors to do that,” he said. “The other way we are supporting schools is with our Connect With Lee Program.”

The program will expand on Tuesday to be offered during the day, as a homework help for students. The expansion will have district staff providing live Zoom link help to students who are home to get their questions answered.

“We are helping with classes and we are helping with content support for students when they are home,” Spiro said.

Another question stemmed around what was offered last year, Lee Home Connect, which Spiro said they do not have the authority to offer right now. The innovative learning model was approved last year through an executive order.

“We have face-to-face, Lee Virtual, which is a virtual program, virtual option for our students. Of course homeschool and then homeschool with FVLS Flex, which means the student can be enrolled in homeschool and at the same time take one or two FVLS courses as well,” Spiro said.

Lee Virtual School will open again for enrollment at the end of the semester.