ROCK HALL — As COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise amid heightened concerns over the Delta variant, students and staff will be required to mask up this fall when inside Kent County Public Schools buildings.
The Kent County County Board of Education reached that consensus during its monthly meeting Monday, Aug. 9 and it was formalized in a letter posted on the school system’s website the following day.
Perhaps the bigger news to come out of the meeting for parents and students, though, is the plan to return to full in-person instruction five days a week. Even once students returned to buildings last year following the full spring 2020 lockdown, they did so on a hybrid schedule alternating in-person and virtual instruction days.
The first day of school for students is Tuesday, Sept.7.
“The Kent County Public Schools (KCPS) is excited to welcome students five days a week for traditional face to face instruction,” the letter signed by Superintendent Karen Couch states. “The masking requirement for vaccinated and unvaccinated students and staff will preserve our ability to continue in-person instruction and help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in our schools.”
During the Board of Education meeting, Gina Jachimowicz, KCPS director of teaching and learning, spoke about the school system’s three committees reviewing health safety protocols. Those committees covered safety and return to play, instruction and operations.
Couch told the board that the Kent County Health Department is strongly encouraging students to wear masks as is the new state superintendent of schools.
She said based on the number of cases in the county, she agreed on starting the school year with a mandate that everyone wear masks indoors, including at the central office in Rock Hall, and on buses.
One exception would be in the cafeteria when students are eating. Masks also are not being required outdoors on school grounds.
“But at any other times when they are in the schools they would be wearing masks,” Couch said.
The school system plans to maintain 3 feet of social distancing whenever possible, though Couch reminded board members that with no hybrid instruction, classrooms will be at full capacity.
Additional safety protocols discussed at the meeting and listed in the letter include promoting frequent hand-washing and proper hygiene and enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of schools.
Parents will be expected to screen students for any symptoms every day and staff will be required to self screen.
The school system also will conduct contact tracing and quarantining as necessary.
COVID-19 vaccines are not being mandated. Everyone eligible — generally those over 12 years of age — is being encouraged to get vaccinated.
“KCPS encourages all eligible persons to get fully vaccinated to protect yourself and those around you,” the letter states.
Board members were on board with the mask requirement, with President Joe Goetz saying it is easier to start the school year with such a restriction in place and then back it down if it is no longer necessary. He said he has been reading national news stories of children ending up hospitalized due to the Delta variant.
“My personal opinion is that we should implement this,” said Goetz, himself a KCPS parent. “I just think that it makes a lot of sense.”
Board member Francoise Sullivan, who also is a KCPS parent, agreed, saying she wanted to make sure it is clear that everyone is required to wear a mask regardless of whether or not they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
“With approximately half our student population currently being under 12 and ineligible to receive a vaccine I think it’s vital that we do whatever we can to protect them and our staff,” she said.
Board member Wendy Costa said board unity on the issue of masks — and the board was united in its favorable opinion of the mandate — was important “because there are people who are going to fight this.” She said the board is responsible for the safety of students and the staff.
Board member Nivek Johnson asked how the school system would handle anyone who fights against the mask requirement.
Couch said the school system did not have any problems with that last year. She said the KCPS Blended Learning Academy, which offers a hybrid model of virtual and small-setting in-person instruction, will be available again this fall if a parent prefers.
Jachimowicz said that while masks have not been required for the school system’s summer programs, families have been sending students in with masks.
“And we have many staff members that are wearing masks to model that it’s OK to wear the masks, which is a really good way to approach this,” she told board members.
Lunches were an additional concern for board members, with some suggesting that students also be allowed to eat outside when the weather permits. For administrators, that could create an issue of student supervision, as teachers are also afforded a lunch break.
Trish McGee, board vice president and associate editor of the Kent County News, raised the question of whether the school system had a pool of substitutes at the ready should teachers be out due to COVID.
Administrators said they are working on plans for that.
Human Resources Supervisor Dan Hushion said he should have a substitute roster prepared this month.