No motion on mask mandate at H-LP schools

Tuesday, October 13, 2020
The Harris-Lake Park School Board decided to continue current COVID-19 mitigation efforts, and directed administrators to enhance current efforts at the middle school/high school building. Superintendent Andy Irwin recommended the board require staff and students wear masks when they can not be at least 6 feet apart, but the board made no such motion during a special session Thursday. Irwin said changes to athletic events were not discussed at the meeting.
File photo

School board opts to bolster current COVID-19 mitigation

The Harris-Lake Park school board met in special session Thursday night to discuss potential changes to its COVID-19 mitigation efforts, but H-LP Superintendent Andy Irwin said no motion was put forward by the board to mandate masks be worn by students and staff in the school. Irwin said the district will continue to recommend masks be worn, and the board will be reassessing the situation at least once a month.

A number of school boards in the region have recently held meetings to reconsider requiring masks, after the IDPH released new quarantine guidelines in late September. The new IDPH recommendations do not require individuals to quarantine for 14 days after being exposed to a positive case so long as both parties were properly wearing face masks at the time an infected individual would still be instructed to isolate themselves. If either party was not wearing a mask, health officials would still recommend quarantine and isolation.

Irwin actually recommended the H-LP's school board mandate the use of masks in situations where students and staff can't remain at least 6 feet apart, according to the Thursday's minutes, "because the least amount of kids would have to quarantine." The board decided not to follow the superintendent's recommendation.

"We must be prepared that significant numbers of students will be quarantined if there is a positive case in our school district," Thursday's minutes read.

H-LP serves about 350 students one of the smallest school districts in the county. If H-LP's COVID-related absences rise above about 53 students, the Iowa Department of Education would allow the district to apply a hybrid learning model both online and in-person instruction. If viral absenteeism breaks the 20 percent mark about 70 students in H-LP's case the district would be allowed to move fully online. High School Principal Greg Hiemstra told the board 30 students had used the district's online learning option on a temporary basis as of Thursday's meeting. Use of the remote learning option ranged from as low as two days of use to as many as 14 days. A total of 10 students have chosen to learn through online means permanently, according to the minutes.

The H-LP school board voted in August to recommend face coverings whenever they can be used both safely and correctly rather than outright requiring masks be used.

"Like any school district, this is a difficult time," Irwin said. "Boards are having to make very difficult decisions. Communities can be divided, however we feel within Harris-Lake Park everybody's been understanding about the decision making."

Prior to the start of the school year, Irwin said the district had enough masks on hand for all of its students. Hand sanitizer was to be made readily available as the new school year started. Overlapping meal times were minimized, and no food or drink save for water was allowed in the classrooms. Grade school recess was to be limited to a single grade at a time, and instructors of special subjects were expected to visit individual classrooms to minimize the number of people in the hallways.

"We will maintain current mitigation efforts in the elementary building," Irwin said. "However, the H-LP board did direct the administration to enhance the mitigation efforts at the middle school/high school building."

Irwin said details were still being worked out as of Friday, but he said a few adjustments could be made to minimize potential contact among the district's older students.

"What we fee like we need to do is provide more opportunity for social distancing, and then we need to look at ways to limit student movement a little bit more through the building and through the day," Irwin said.

Irwin previously said H-LP's lower enrollment numbers are something of an advantage when it comes to social distancing. Irwin reported no positive cases of COVID-19 within the district in late September, and he said that was still the case as of Friday. The superintendent did mention one staff member had been quarantined and two students were awaiting test results, but he said each of those situations stemmed from potential exposure outside of school.

Irwin said the school board's discussion Friday did not touch on potential changes at school athletic events, but he said the board wants significant monthly updates on the virus so necessary adjustments can be made as quickly as possible.

"For the most part, our students are pretty good with adapting to the changes," Irwin said. "Obviously, students are students, and you're going to have some people that have a more difficult time with a change than others. However, we feel we can usually change things pretty easily."

Irwin said any potential implementation of mask mandates or other mitigation efforts will have to be done faithfully and fully or they won't be effective.

"It really comes down to administration and the board backing the administration to say, 'We need this, it's important, it's for the safety of our kids and we're going to do our due diligence in order to make the changes happen,'" Irwin said.

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