WELLSBORO — Wellsboro Area School District asked its administrators to come up with a plan for contact tracing should the district decide to end universal masking for students and staff.
The board of directors reviewed the plan at its Jan. 11 work session, discussing options for about two hours before another half-hour of public comment. The board reviewed each item: handwashing, cleaning facilities, ventilation, contact tracing and isolation before moving onto the topic which has been the focus of meetings since the beginning of the school year: masking.
Before the start of school, the board made masking optional if the county is in low or moderate transmission, but mandated masking when the county is in high or transmission. Since the start of school, the county has been in high or substantial rate.
Additionally, Gov. Tom Wolf mandated masking in schools until the order was struck down by the court in early December 2021. The board has wrestled with the issue since then and after “Parent’s Choice” candidates waged successful write-in campaigns.
Much of the discussion centered on contact tracing, which Superintendent Brenda Freeman said assists in identifying students and staff who have been in close contact (within 3-6 feet) of someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
“One of the things that has helped keep the schools open is making sure that students are not coming to school ill,” Freeman said.
Ultimately, the district’s Health and Safety Plan, which must be reviewed every six months and updated if necessary, will hinge on whether masking is mandatory or optional, said Freeman. That decision will drive the district’s other actions.
Currently the district has 13 positive cases, up from about 8 before the holiday break. The peak from the Omicron variant is expected to be mid-January, noted Director John Hoover.
If students and staff don’t wear masks, anyone within 3-6 feet of a COVID-positive individual is automatically considered a close contact, she said. Close contacts would then be asked to isolate for five days and, if they have no symptoms on day five, may return to school and be required to wear a mask for days 6-10.
Some board members objected to that while others thought a reasonable compromise would be to eliminate the mask requirement if the individual tested negative for COVID-19.
The board asked administrators how soon they could be ready if the district drops the current masking policy. Both high school principal Jeremy Byrd and middle school principal Rob Kreger said it would require reconfiguring the classrooms, adjusting class sizes and modifying schedules to create six feet of space between students and faculty to facilitate contact tracing.
Both estimated that the semester change on Jan. 24 would be the earliest. They also noted that tracking student mask wearing on days 6-10 would also be challenging.
Director Maegan McConnell said she thought all masking should be eliminated, including days 6-10 while Director Rebecca Charles asked if it would place an additional burden on already-stressed faculty to monitor when students must wear masks.
The board also questioned how lunches would work and learned that cafeterias are emptier than pre-COVID, but more full than last year. Students are still able to use additional spaces and classrooms.
When asked if other districts that have gone mask optional have seen a spike in cases, Freeman said some have but most have not, although it is still early.
The board directed Freeman and other administrative staff to develop Health and Safety plan options with the current masking protocol and optional masking at all levels of transmission. The board plans to meet again to review each option prior to the meeting next Tuesday, Jan. 18.