Papillion-La Vista schools to transition to mask recommendations

The district’s gradual rollback plan also includes a threshold for restoring the mask requirement — temporarily.
Published: Oct. 26, 2021 at 8:48 AM CDT
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PAPILLION, Neb. (WOWT) - Papillion-La Vista Community Schools is set to begin a transition away from its district-wide mask mandate.

At its meeting Monday, the school board voted to end the mask mandate at the high school level beginning Wednesday. At that time, wearing a mask will only be recommended for high school students. The district will continue to monitor the COVID-19 data as the school year proceeds.

In outlining the plan to the board ahead of its vote, district spokeswoman Annette Eyman said the district had received feedback from the community indicating many want clearly identified triggers for starting and stopping mask requirements, so the PLCS response plan for high school students includes that: A school’s three-day average attendance indicating a minimum 7% absence rate — for any illness — will trigger the mask requirement again for at least 14 days, or longer if the three-day average absence rate continues to be at 7% or above.

As an example, 7% of the Papillion-La Vista High School population would be 125 students; at Papillion-La Vista South High School, it’s 134. In the height of the COVID-19 during the last school year, that trigger would have put masks into effect last November.

The tentative timeline approved Monday night calls for the school board to consider transitioning middle school students from a mask mandate to a mask recommendation at the Nov. 8 board meeting. If the change is approved, it would go into effect two days later. The same procedure would be considered at the Dec. 13 meeting for elementary school students effective Jan. 5, after the winter break.

Eyman told the board that the plan started at the high school level because it’s a population that can get vaccinated and because it allows PLCS officials to make sure their model is working before rolling it out to younger students. But officials did note that elementary schools are seeing higher case numbers this year, and faster spread at the beginning of the year.

Regardless, the district plans to continue “non-pharmaceutical interventions,” like social distancing, extra surface disinfecting and hand-washing, and using the district’s “screener” to encourage keeping kids home from school when they are sick.

Board members were presented data that showed that the peak of cases among students during the 2021-2022 school year so far was 82 in the third week of school. The mask mandate was implemented at that peak. Since then, the number of cases has fallen significantly. The highest number during the 2020-2021 school year was 45 in November 2020.

The district will also continue to hold voluntary vaccination clinics for staff, students, and families. As of Monday, the school board was told more than 90% of its staff was vaccinated.

In clarifying the board’s vote would be for a single item — encompassing the plan for all school levels, rather than one plan for each — PLCS Superintendent Dr. Andrew Rikli said ahead of public comment that the district was trying to build a “sustainable” and “prudent” plan that will avoid “whipsawing” back and forth between different requirements and routines.

“We understand for those parents that want choice, we’re not moving fast enough. We understand for our parents that are scared, that may have medically fragile children, medically fragile family members at home — this is a really scary thing,” Dr. Rikli said. “So the fact of the matter is, the plan outlined here really makes nobody happy, and that’s a difficult position to be in as a leader, where both sides of the equation are pretty upset with you. But as I’ve been told by some pretty smart people in the past, that when you’re trying to find a happy medium and both sets of the equation are upset with you, then you’ve probably found the right middle-of-the-road approach.”

Before the vote, board members discussed the community’s desire to return to a sense of normalcy, but in a “safe and productive manner,” with the understanding that their prime objective is to keep students safe.

Board member Valerie Fisher underscored that the board wasn’t “coercing or pushing anybody to vaccinate their kids. This is a parental decision,” and board member Skip Bailey seconded that sentiment in his public comments. SuAnn Witt, however, spoke in support of continuing the mask requirement, saying she would vote “no” only because of the timeline, saying she believed it would be better to wait until there are less than 100 active cases in the county.

Board member Dr. Fred Tafoya expressed regret that so many topics had become politicized, and he commended Eyman and Dr. Rikli for their respective efforts to educate and lead the district throughout the pandemic. In supporting the gradual scaling back of the mask requirements, he said “ripping the masks off” wasn’t the way to go.

“We have to know what is going to protect our students, what is going to protect our staff. We’re not going to do it if we just rip off the masks and everybody does as they dang-well please. We can’t do that,” he said.

Board President Brian Lodes acknowledged that the board has been focused on masks since April and expressed frustration that they haven’t been able to focus on education.

“I want to figure out a plan. I think this is a good first step — I’m not 100% sold on the overall plan,” he said, noting he wants to follow the data, and that the data indicates the case numbers aren’t going down. “I can get behind at least trying.”

He also noted that while neighboring districts may not have mask requirements, several of them have triggers that do require masks for short time periods.

The Council Bluffs Community Schools board made a move on Tuesday to scale back its district-wide mask mandate. Starting early November, school officials will determine if masks are a must on a week-to-week basis.

They will be taking into consideration the percentage of COVID cases among students and staff at each school from the week prior as well as COVID trends in Pottawattamie County.

Parents will be notified each Friday starting November 5 about whether their kids will be required to wear a mask the following week. The decision to roll back the mandate as COVID cases decline.

“Last week, we had zero cases in eight different schools, so trying to look at each building as a separate entity and make some decisions based on that and over the past four weeks, we’ve averaged six buildings with zero cases and 10 buildings with one case or less,” said Garry Melbourn, Chief of Human Resources, Council Bluffs Community Schools.

We’re expecting a decision from Westside Community Schools on Wednesday on whether it will extend its mask mandate, which is set to end on Friday. As for Omaha Public Schools, the board didn’t put an end date on its mask mandate and hasn’t announced any plans to roll it back.

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