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Smithton School District updates its ‘Return to Learn’ plan

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SMITHTON — The Smithton R-VI School District made some changes to its COVID-19 guidelines after a recent Board of Education meeting and a ruling from Cole County Circuit Court. 

A letter released from the Smithton School District on Dec. 21 describes changes to the district’s “Return to Learn” plan. Prior to the letter, the district has been mask optional the entire 2021-22 school year and hasn’t reached a point from its local data to require masks. 

Superintendent David Bray said district officials have been searching for ways to keep healthy students in school throughout the pandemic. The district has constantly been working to balance restrictive measures and the health and safety of its students and staff.

“The board met in its regular session and each month, we review the plan, essentially, that began in the 2020 school year. We all came back with a plan to address COVID in our districts, so we continued that plan,” Bray added. “This year, we review the plan every 30 days, which is every board meeting.”

At the beginning of the 2021-22 school year, the district developed tiers based on its data threshold for attendance and COVID-related absences. The tiers are used to determine the potential for masking or not masking and for contact tracing so more healthy children can attend in person.

The district’s three-tier guide is as follows: 

• Tier One: Masks optional; excluding students from school setting (positive COVID-19 cases only); information shared with the community; additional spaces for dining, cohorting and social distancing where possible without compromising instruction. Data threshold: More than 85% of students attending in-person class (472 PK-12 students), or less than 3% absent due to COVID-related reasons (19 absentees).

• Tier Two: Masks strongly recommended; contact tracing; information shared with the community; excluding students from the school setting; additional spaces for dining, cohorting and social distancing measures increased. Data threshold: 81% to 85% of students attending in-person classes and trending negatively (450 PK-12 students), or more than 3% absent due to COVID-related reasons (20 absentees) and trending negatively. 

• Tier Three: Masks required; contact tracing; information shared with the community; excluding students from the school setting; additional spaces for dining, cohorting and social distancing measures increased further; considerations for partial or virtual learning models are made. Data threshold: Fewer than 80% of students attending in-person classes and trending negatively (440 PK-12 students), or more than 10% absent due to COVID-19 related reasons (63 absentees) and trending negatively. 

“We’re going to watch our numbers and as long as they stay above a certain threshold, then we’re going to be less restrictive when it comes to contact tracing, especially with the loss of our county health departments kind of,” Bray said. 

County health departments are no longer allowed to issue this type of guidance on schools due to a November ruling in Cole County Circuit Court. 

“The whole time, we have been looking for more reasonable guidance when it comes to those non-sick children because, in our estimation, the scope of that close contact hit more children than what we would like,” Bray said. 

A few things helped the district, like the “Test to Stay.” Earlier this month, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt began notifying districts and municipalities about the Cole County ruling, which states that orders such as quarantines and business closures violate the Missouri Constitution's separation of powers clause. At that time, the Smithton District began to think from a how-to-stay-open perspective, so the district went back to the three-tier thresholds with contact tracing. 

“So we can minimize the number of students and faculty that a positive case impacts by having less restrictive contact tracing procedures,” Bray added. 

Along with these changes, this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated and shortened the isolation and quarantine period for the general population to five days instead of 10 days, which the Smithton School District will follow. 

The updated COVID-19 guidelines include: 

• If a person tests positive for COVID-19, stay home for five days. If they have no symptoms or symptoms are resolved after five days, they can leave the house and continue to wear a mask around others for five additional days.

• If exposed but vaccinated within the last six months/within the last two months, if the person received Johnson & Johnson or has the booster, wear a mask around others for 10 days and get tested on day five if possible. 

• If exposed but vaccinated over six months ago/over two months ago, if the person received Johnson & Johnson, has no booster or is unvaccinated, stay home for five days. After that, continue to wear a mask around others for five additional days. If a person can’t quarantine, they must wear a mask for 10 days and get tested on day five if possible. 

• All guidelines recommend that if the person has/develops symptoms, they should stay home. 

Bray said most cases of COVID-19 in the district have come from students’ homes rather than at school. So, the district will not have to contact trace if it is in tier one but will do contact tracing during tiers two and three. 

“Hopefully, by the end of this school year, we are back down to, ‘hey, if you don’t feel well, then you shouldn’t come to school and if you come here and don’t feel well, then we’re going to send you home,’” Bray said. 

This is the sick policy at almost every school for when a child is not feeling well. 

“It’s been a stressful situation for communities like ours, so I always would like to say thanks to the community for being corporative, supportive, and doing the things that we need to do to help more students in school…,” Bray said. “I cannot thank our community enough for supporting us in what we’re trying to do.”

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