Mt. Vernon mulling COVID-19 protocols after feedback

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HANCOCK COUNTY – Mt. Vernon schools officials tabled a proposed update to its health and safety protocols and will contemplate other parts of the existing plan after receiving feedback from parents and a physician.

The debate comes as the school district records three COVID-19 cases and 72 close contacts exposed to those individuals since the start of the school year just over a week ago.

First adopted in May and modified in July, Mt. Vernon’s system already relies on the absentee rate due to combined illness of 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.

Mt. Vernon’s school board held a special meeting Friday afternoon and evening to consider adding numbers of COVID-positive individuals per building as triggers for those requirements as well.

The plan also already addresses procedures for reporting COVID-19 cases, investigation and contact tracing, as well as isolation for those who test positive for COVID-19 and quarantining of close contacts, all of which stem from Indiana Department of Health measures referred to in a state executive order. Those measures include avoiding quarantines for close contacts who are fully vaccinated and shorter quarantines for close contacts who test negative if they mask and socially distance for the remainder of what would have been a full quarantine.

Indiana’s back-to-school guidance also recently added that while fully vaccinated close contacts don’t necessarily have to quarantine, they should wear a mask until a negative test result is received.

Of Mt. Vernon’s 72 close contacts, 15 do not have to quarantine at home due to being fully vaccinated. A close contact is defined as anyone within 6 feet of someone infected with COVID-19 for a total of at least 15 minutes within a 24-hour period.

A federal mandate requires masks on school buses. Mt. Vernon encourages wearing masks in buildings, and requires them in buildings in the orange and red tiers – the most severe of the district’s color system. Orange represents an absentee rate of 16% due to combined illness of students and staff in an individual building, while red represents 20%.

Nine people spoke critically of the district’s health and safety protocols at the meeting, most of whom are Mt. Vernon parents. Their concerns included a lack of educational opportunities for quarantined students, frustration toward the ever-changing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, impacts to students’ mental and emotional health, and effects on personal freedoms. They expressed discouragement over how political COVID-19 measures have become, pointed to low mortality and few instances of severe illness among children from the novel coronavirus, and questioned how Mt. Vernon would enforce the measures.

One parent recounted receiving a call from her child who was quarantined in school for nearly two hours earlier this week and how she didn’t hear from the school until after she had already picked up the child.

Jack Parker, Mt. Vernon superintendent, restated an apology he gave the parent after the incident.

“I was very unhappy that your child had to wait, and I fully believe that was a big mistake that we won’t make again, and I’m sorry about that,” Parker said. “…That was certainly very disappointing.”

Another parent, Traci Dayhoff of McCordsville, said the school system needs a virtual learning plan for students at home in quarantine.

“As a parent, if I choose not to send my kids to school for 10 days, you can turn me into [Department of Child Services] for neglect,” she told the school board. “But we’re allowing our school system to neglect our children’s education for God knows how many days and call it excused in the name of COVID. To me there’s no excuse for that; there needs to be some sort of better plan.”

Haile Loring, a Mt. Vernon parent from Fortville, shared a similar concern.

“This is a publicly funded school,” she said. “We pay for academics.”

School officials agree, and hope to have a plan for students unable to participate in in-person learning by Aug. 20.

“We have some things to do better specifically regarding and supporting students who are not able to come to school in person,” Parker said. “And we’ve already started doing some significant conversations with our building administrators, teachers association, and that takes just a few more days, but we certainly know that we need to do a better job in supporting students who are not able to be in-person learning.”

Dr. Dan Stock, a McCordsville resident and family medicine physician, said the measures Mt. Vernon has implemented and is considering adding are not useful. He added Indiana Department of Health and CDC recommendations are “contrary to the rules of science.”

Coronavirus and other respiratory virus particles are small enough to go through masks, Stock continued, adding vaccines will not be effective against COVID-19. He noted the virus is on the rise in the middle of summer, a time when respiratory viral syndromes are typically at their lowest. Stock also pointed to the COVID-19 outbreak last month in Provincetown, Massachusetts, the majority of which included vaccinated individuals.

Vaccines don’t prevent infection, just symptoms, Stock said.

“So you cannot stop spread, you cannot make these numbers that you’ve planned on get better by doing any of the things that you’re doing,” he said. “Because that is the nature of viral respiratory pathogens. And you can’t prevent it with a vaccine because they don’t do the very thing you’re wanting them to do. And you will be chasing this through the remainder of your life until you recognize the Centers for Disease Control and the Indiana State Board of Health are giving you very bad scientific guidance.”

Meeting attendees also questioned whether the school corporation is legally required to have close contacts quarantine at home. Parker said the corporation’s legal counsel advised that reporting positive cases, conducting contact tracing investigations and requiring un-vaccinated close contacts to quarantine is legally required, and that it’s a Class B misdemeanor for each day of noncompliance.

Parker also noted the school corporation has received 20 emails on the health and safety plan, seven of which ask for more restrictive protocols.

Mt. Vernon recorded just over 300 COVID-19 cases among students and staff throughout the 2020-2021 school year, with 1,775 close contacts. The district’s highest monthly totals per school ranged from five cases to 29.

Under the proposed additions to the health and safety plan, nine students/staff members not sharing a household who are COVID-positive in an elementary school, and 15 in a secondary school, would put the building in the orange tier, requiring masks to be worn inside. Parker said based on last year’s data, such a situation wouldn’t be likely unless under extreme circumstances.

“To trigger mask wearing in the orange tier, we believe that unless our numbers of COVID-positive cases increase considerably from last year, or they are all concentrated in a few short weeks, we’re not likely to get to the orange tier due to that reason,” he said.

In light of the comments and literature Stock provided, board members expressed a desire to hold off on considering adding COVID-positive totals as triggers to the tiered color system, and explore whether quarantining could be mitigated or avoided.

Board member Shannon Walls moved to table the matter for further discussion at the school board’s next meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 16 in the school corporation’s administration building located at 1806 W. State Road 234, Fortville.

“I believe we have an obligation to, one, find the facts that were shared today,” Walls said. “We have not had a chance to review that information ourselves as a board. I think we have an obligation to our students to know what our academic plan is moving forward.”

The board approved the motion 4-0 with Walls, Chad Gray, Kellie Freeman and Tony May voting in favor. Phil Edwards was not present.

The decision only tabled the proposed addition of COVID-positive totals per school building to the health and safety plan. The rest of the plan remains in place, including quarantining measures.