JEFFERSON — Despite administrators and health officials' recommendations, the Jefferson school board has reaffirmed its intention to hold face-to-face classes when the fall semester starts in the first week of September.
A special meeting was held Wednesday evening to consider a recommendation from school administration to go all-virtual until Oct. 5, on the advice of the Jefferson County epidemiologist and based on the metrics included in the county's COVID-19 school reopening guidance document.
Board member Matthew Peltier introduced the motion to stay with in-person classes, and the vote was 5-2, with members Tanya Ball, Glenn Fleming, Travis Maze and Peltier and President Donna Bente voting yes. Board members Dick Lovett and Terri Wenkman voted against that plan, with Wenkman saying she wanted to wait for additional information.
Pam Streich, the new liaison between the county's schools and the Jefferson County Health Department, cited the COVID-19 positivity rate in the county as of today at 10.2.
That is above the threshold of an 8-percent positivity rate that Jefferson County epidemiologist Samroz Jakvani has set as threshold when schools should consider switching to all-virtual instruction in order to combat community spread of COVID-19.
The positivity rate is a rolling average calculated over 14 days. Nationwide, the rate many communities are using as a threshold for closing schools is 5 percent, Streich said, but Jakvani said it would be adequate to use the 8-percent threshold for Jefferson County because of its lower population density.
Streich noted that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Health, has said a positivity rate of 10 percent is a "huge red flag" for school reopenings.
School District of Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson opened the meeting with the reasoning behind his request.
He noted that it is rare for a rural county this size to have access to the level of expertise represented by Jakvani, noting that the purpose behind the county hiring the epidemiologist was to establish a metric on which schools can rely.
"Superintendents and school officials are not health-care employees, let alone epidemiologists," Rollefson said.
The metric Jakvani laid out and which is included in the county COVID-19 school reopening plan looks at several different factors, including positivity rates, the number of tests given, trends in testing, new positive tests, test site availability and hospital capacity.
Under the county plan, virtual-only instruction is recommended if the county positivity rate reaches or exceeds 8 percent or if the percent of infections through community spread — that is, with an unknown source — reaches 60 percent.
Rollefson said that the county's rate reached 9.4 percent on Monday.
The health department recommends 14 straight days with a positivity rate below 8 percent to shift back to face-to-face learning, he noted.
"My heart tells me to stay open. My heart tells me our families need us," Rollefson said. "I cannot express more sincerely and deeply my concern for moms and dads with young children in need of day care options so that parents can go to work.
"We offer an amazing face-to-face academic, social, emotional and extra-curricular program. I miss that so badly for our children," he said.
At the same time, Rollefson said, he is trained in education, not epidemiology, and these are the recommendations that come from an expert in the field.
However, the decision did not rest with Rollefson, the county or the epidemiologist, but, rather, with the elected members of the school board.
"There may be those that suspect or believe this was my intent or the district's intent all along," Rollefson said of the proposal to go all-virtual temporarily. "I can only share with you this cannot be further from the truth. I want our kids back in classrooms. It is indeed the last recommendation that I wanted to bring forward."
Then the board moved into discussion of the proposal. Every board member weighed in, many expressing concerns over the mental health and well-being of children who remained at home.
Had the board approved the administrative recommendation, the district would have jumped from Level 2 (parental choice between face-to-face or virtual instruction) to Level 4 (all virtual), skipping over a potential hybrid program.
Lovett said that the recommendation to move to Level 4 to start school was based on scientific data.
Wenkman said the issue weighed heavily on her heart and she would like the decision tabled until the district could look at other metrics, such as community spread, and see where those numbers stand.
"How much infectivity is going on is a big deal," she said.
The last she heard, Wenkman said, Jefferson County's numbers were hovering around 40 percent, but she'd like to know more about the trend lines.
Wenkman said that as a nurse, she has been working with COVID-19 patients and she implored people to follow community health guidelines so the county could get these numbers down.
Wenkman said she sees the other side of the issue too, from having served as a social worker, aiding foster children in larger cities.
"There's no definitive measure of the mental health effect of this pandemic, but it's palpable," she said.
For the most vulnerable children, school represents more than just an education — it can be their safe haven, their social network and their source of adult support.
"Those can't happen through the computer," she said.
She also voiced concern about the potential glut of children coming in to day cares, which are smaller than schools.
Board member Travis Maze characterized his feelings about virtual learning as a "hard no," saying that 80 percent of families want face-to-face instruction.
"Five parents contacted me today, and in two-and-a-half years on the board, I don't think I've had five parents contact me about anything," he said.
He said mental health issues are on the rise during the pandemic and the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office for which he works is seeing the emergency calls.
"Our goal should be to get every student back in the classroom," Maze said.
Peltier said that he understands the administration's position with this request, noting that the superintendent's leadership throughout this crisis has been outstanding.
"I also have faith in what he and our administrative team have set up (for safe return to school). "I'd like to see face-to-face," Peltier said.
Lovett had another take, saying that it will take the entire community to get on top of this crisis.
"I'll be honest," Lovett said. "I've at times shook my head and wondered why I see large groups in our community gathering as if there's no COVID. That worries me. There's an unintentional chance you take of getting (COVID-19) and passing it on to someone else.
"I've had a friend go through a struggle with COVID-19," Lovett continued. "I know they didn't order it from a Sears catalog. They're not real sure how they got it ... No statistic will help that person who has COVID figure out how they got so ill."
Lovett said he did not know what led to the spike in positivity the county has experienced recently.
"Whatever happened to take us from 7.9 to 9.7, God forbid we repeat those actions," Lovett said. "God help us as families. God help us as people."
Fleming thanked Rollefson and the school staff for the "unbelievable" work they'd put in. However, he asked if the district goes virtual now in anticipation of returning to classrooms in October, would it even happen then?
Fleming, too, said he wanted to wait for more information on which to make an informed decision, but if he needed to vote that day, he favored schools opening face-to-face.
After the board vote, Rollefson said that he respected the decision of the board and that the district would take that directive and get behind it.