WCSD Updates Health and Safety Plan to Reduce Number of Denied Entries

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RUSSELL, Pa. – The Warren County School District took another step toward ending denied entry status for close contacts Monday, even as the omicron variant continues its surge.

The board voted 6-1 in favor of a measure that would deny entry only to those close contacts who are either unvaccinated and live with the covid-positive person, or who are unable or unwilling to properly wear a mask.

Close contacts who live at home and are vaccinated, as well as those who are close contacts from school or the community, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, must wear a mask to school for 10 days following exposure. The mask requirement can be lifted after Day 7 “with a documented negative test administered at a formal testing site/health care facility on Day 5, 6, or 7.”

“Based upon what we’re learning about omicron and what the epidemiologist is telling me there’s no containing this,” WCSD Superintendent Amy Stewart said. “It’s going to go. We’ve unwound this one step at a time. We’ve been methodical, we’ve been logical, and we’ve tried to make sure that we’re doing the responsible thing, and trying to focus on keeping our doors open and kids in school, but that’s what this board and administration have tried to do the entire time. This is one more step in that direction.”

Arthur Stewart was the lone vote against (Marcy Morgan and Mary Passinger did not attend Monday’s meeting), citing a desire to eliminate denied entry altogether.

“To bar students from school just goes against everything that I stand for in terms of a board member,” Arthur Stewart said. “And now we’re at a point where omicron is not deadly in the way that COVID has been. I would say to you I would be inclined to pass a motion that said we do away with denied entry.”

Stewart pointed to CDC data showing that the death rate has not had a similar spike to the case rate during the omicron surge, as had been the case with other variants.

Graph courtesy CDC.
Graph courtesy CDC

While death rates are lower, case counts continue to surge and hospitalizations are actually higher than they were a year ago, according to CDC data.

Graph courtesy CDC.

According to Pennsylvania Department of Health data, there were 25 COVID cases in Warren County children from Dec. 29, 2021 through Jan. 4, 2022. Since Aug. 16, 2021, there have been 462 child cases in Warren County.

Amy Stewart said adult absences are increasing as well.

“Our typical absences would be around 30 – 40 employees, today we were at 77,” Amy Stewart said. “That’s a lot. So we’re keeping a very close eye on that. (In) cafeteria, we had 13 vacancies today. And we only have 40 cafeteria workers. So I think we’re in for a tough two, three weeks here with folks just being absent because there’s a lot of stuff going around.”

Superintendent Stewart said the basic operating principle in keeping district buildings open is that “we can’t have more little people than big.”

“I think there’s a fine line between having some measures in place and having no measure in place from the standpoint of being able to function as a district and having our students in the buildings,” board member Donna Zariczny said. “Because I think if the numbers of adults continue to go up, that are out of the buildings, we’re gonna have to shut a building and we don’t want that. So I guess I’m still of the opinion that we’re going in the right direction in terms of the protocols we’re putting in place. I don’t personally believe that we’re at a point yet to eliminate them altogether.”

Arthur Stewart said the district had reached a “benchmark for the emergency being in the review mirror,” and that it was time to stop denying entry to students.

“There’s a provision in the health code in the regs that basically states that students exhibiting certain enumerated systems, regardless of what’s causing them, to be excluded from school unless the school nurse or physician determines that these students are non-communicable,” WCSD Solicitor Chris Byham said.

Amy Stewart said, based on information received from the epidemiologist the district has been working with, that she may recommend an end to denied entry by February’s board meeting.

“I think it might be one more meeting and I would be recommending almost exactly what you’re saying,” Amy Stewart said. “I’m just not ready to go there with where we are with omicron.”