HANCOCK COUNTY — The Mt. Vernon school district has added contact tracing, quarantining and requiring masks on buses to its health and safety measures for the upcoming academic year.
School officials made the additions in light of state and federal requirements. The measures join a policy the district adopted in May for the 2021-22 school year ahead of a state executive order that expired June 30 regarding COVID-19 mitigation protocols in schools.
Mt. Vernon’s tiered color system uses the absentee rate for students and staff in an individual building to trigger certain requirements. Those include additional sanitizing procedures, masking, and, in the event of widespread absences, consulting with the Hancock County Health Department about possibly closing a school. The system is designed for all types of absences due to any illness, not just the novel coronavirus.
Earlier this month, the Indiana State Department of Health indicated schools need to continue contact tracing and quarantining those determined to be a close contact of a positive COVID-19 individual.
According to Mt. Vernon’s updated policy, fully vaccinated individuals who are exposed to a positive COVID-19 individual would not be excluded from school unless they develop symptoms.
Students and staff who are close contacts must quarantine unless they are vaccinated. Verification of vaccination may be provided to school nursing staff at any time, including as late as identification as a close contact.
“Those who are vaccinated can share that information with us,” said Jack Parker, Mt. Vernon superintendent. “Nobody is required to at any time. If an individual is determined to be a close contact, and they happen to be vaccinated, the parent can state that at that time.”
Contact tracing will be conducted for those within 6 feet of a positive COVID-19 individual for at least 15 minutes when masks are not required in a building that’s in the green, blue or yellow tiers, which represent absentee rates due to combined illness of less than 12%, at least 12%, and at least 14%, respectively. Contact tracing will also be conducted for those within 3 feet of a positive COVID-19 individual in a regular classroom when masks are required — the orange (16%) and red (20%) tiers.
Students who are close contacts who must be quarantined will be excused when their absences are due to the quarantine.
“This is something schools have experienced for years — for one reason or another, a child must leave school for an extended period of time — and we need to be able to manage that,” Parker said. “We will be able to use our traditional methods in order to do that.”
Mt. Vernon will also continue to offer BinaxNow COVID-19 rapid testing for those who are close contacts and don’t have symptoms. The tests will potentially allow for a 10-day quarantine to shrink to seven.
Tracy Furnas, the school corporation’s nurse, is working with the state health department to bring PCR COVID-19 tests to the district. The tests require processing in a laboratory and are less likely to result in false negatives than the rapid BinaxNow test.
Testing students for COVID-19 requires consent and presence from parents.
“The right to refusal is always first and foremost,” Furnas said.
Mt. Vernon will strive to arrange classrooms to maintain at least 3 feet between students as well.
“Obviously it’ll be difficult with some rooms that have tables instead of desks, and some rooms that are smaller with larger class sizes, but we will do our best to keep that organized,” said Derek Shelton, the district’s director of operations and chief safety officer. He added seating charts will continue to be updated in classrooms and buses for contact tracing purposes.
The federal government requires masks covering the nose and mouth while riding public transportation, including school buses.
“Anyone riding a school bus still must be fully masked while riding the bus, whether they’ve been vaccinated or not, and that is a federal mandate issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation,” said Chris Smedley, Mt. Vernon assistant superintendent. “So that’s something that we need to continue to adhere to throughout the year, at least starting off, until that’s lifted.”
A tracker of absences due to illness per building will be on the school corporation’s website. It will be updated at least weekly when rates are under 10%, and daily when above that level.
“As soon as we hit the 10% threshold, we will update this color daily, and ensure that if we start creeping close to the 16% — which puts us into wearing masks — we have had plenty of notification and plenty of time to try to put our controls in place to ensure we don’t continue to move toward that 16%,” Furnas said.
The updated policy recalls that in non-pandemic school years, Mt. Vernon’s average daily absence rate due to illness hovered in the 3% range, with very few spikes approaching 6%. It also notes that Hancock County has the fifth highest COVID-19 vaccination rate in the state, and that rates for ZIP codes encompassing Fortville and McCordsville are around 80%, according to state health department data.
School board members Chad Gray, Shannon Walls, Kellie Freeman and Phil Edwards voted in favor of the updated policies at a meeting earlier this week. Tony May was not present.
“I hate that we have to do it, but I think it’s well put together and thorough,” Gray said.
The policy is subject to change.
“We are still tracking this and things are likely to change to some degree,” Parker said. “We will communicate any changes as soon as possible. At this point, we’re using the best advice and legal opinions that we can get.”
Mt. Vernon’s first day of school is Thursday, July 29.
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Read Mt. Vernon’s Health, Safety, and Facilities Protocols for the 2021-2022 School Year in its entirety at mvcsc.k12.in.us/mc/2.