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Jackson parents voice COVID-19 concerns at school board meeting

Three parents from Jackson spoke at the Sept. 14 school board meeting about the district’s COVID-19 policy and the use of masks at school. From left: Lydia Sumner and Nancy Blattel. Not pictured: Dr. Michael Ornburn. Photo by Jay Forness

Three Jackson R-2 School District parents spoke to the school board about COVID-19 during the board’s regular meeting on Sept. 14. Two urged the board to do more to protect students from the virus, while one asked the board to continue letting parents decide on safety measures like mask wearing.

Superintendent Scott Smith said masks are recommended for students and staff throughout the district, but they are not mandated at this time. The school district currently only mandates masks on school buses due to federal mandates

Last school year, students and staff who learned in-person were required to wear facemasks when in common spaces and when social distancing could not be maintained.

Jackson parent Lydia Sumner, who works as a certified contact tracer, said she’d give the district a “F” grade in regard to their current COVID-19 safety protocols – citing the lack of a mask mandate and proper social distancing in classrooms and lunch.

Sumner said she has two children – a nine year old and a six year old – who are currently too young to get a COVID-19 vaccine. “I’ve actually cried dropping them off, because I do not feel like they are safe,” she said.

“We need to keep our kids in school and safe,” Sumner said. “I am mandated to send my kids to your schools. With that mandate should come the assurance that we’re doing everything possible to keep every kid safe from a pandemic COVID virus. We have all kinds of safety protocols in place for hazards including intruder drills, tornado drills, fire drills – how many kids in our schools were affected by those hazards last year?”

Dr. Michael Ornburn, an anesthesiologist for SoutheastHEALTH, also advised that the district do more to protect students from COVID-19, saying the district has a large role in limiting the spread of COVID-19 between students and as one of the largest employers in Jackson.

Ornburn said the current positivity rate in the community is high enough, according to current CDC recommendations, to warrant switching to virtual learning, “much less debating the merits of masks in schools.”

“Study after study after study after study has shown that masks decrease the transmission of respiratory viruses,” Ornburn said, adding that the district shouldn’t avoid a mandate due to threats of legal jeopardy.

“The Supreme Court has clearly ruled, both historically and recently, that public health supersedes individual rights,” Ornburn said, mentioning that non-smoking ordinances have withstood legal challenges.

He added that his sixth grader, who wears a mask at school, comes home talking about offhand comments against mask wearing. “If everyone wore masks, all would be protected and none would have basis for marginalization,” Ornburn said.

Nancy Blattel, who has a kindergartener and a student at the middle school, said she wanted to ask the district to allow parents to continue doing what they think is best for their children — including wearing masks and getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“My son is old enough to know how fun school used to be and unfortunately my daughter knows no difference,” Blattel said. “As a parent, I try to keep their lives normal. I’m actually fighting to keep their lives normal.”

Blattel said she respected other parents for masking or vaccinating their children, but that all needed to be able to choose what is best for their children. “There are too many powers that be attempting to make decisions for us and our families, not for the greater good but for other motivating factors,” Blattel said.

Although no changes were made to the district’s COVID-19 safety protocols, the school board approved the hiring of three additional contact tracers.

“As last year ended and we went through summer school, we were not seeing the number of cases that we have started seeing this year,” Smith said. “Adding three contact tracers should help us throughout the process.”

In addition, the district launched a COVID-19 dashboard that shows the district’s current number of positive cases and those quarantining. The dashboard will be updated weekly and can be found at www.jacksonr2-schools.com/quicklinks/covid_dashboard.

As of Sept. 14, the district had 40 students who had COVID-19 and 163 students were quarantined. In addition, six staff members had COVID-19 and six were quarantined.

Associate Superintendent Jessica Maxwell said the district is also tracking how many students who were quarantined due to a close contact at school end up contracting the virus. Of the 268 students who have been quarantined due to a close contact at school so far this year, six students (two percent) ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

Smith said the district is currently looking at the positivity rate of students and staff members, number of quarantines, substitute teacher usage and overall attendance daily to inform their COVID-19 decisions.

The district will also continue its partnership with Broadway Pharmacy to host vaccination events on school grounds. Broadway Pharmacy held a clinic on Sept. 9 and will hold its next clinic on Oct. 1.

In addition, district staff is in contact with county public health officials, other school districts and the two local hospitals to receive weekly information about COVID-19 spread in the community.

In other action:

The school board approved an evaluation of the district’s at-risk program, which helps meet the needs of children at risk of failing school or dropping out. Highlighted programs included ACES, Power Packs, Life Club and Hope for Christmas.

The ACES program is a collaboration between the district and Community Counseling Center to help students with significant mental health needs. Families receive case management, family therapy and medication therapy, if needed. Currently, there are five elementary students and 12 high school students in the program.

The Power Pack program provides students food over the weekend to help curb child hunger in the community. Last school year, 240 students were served weekly, while this year 256 students are being served.

Life Club is a program at the middle school to help students with homework assistance and to learn basic life skills. The club meets twice a week and has led to a decrease in discipline referrals and improvements in attendance, reading assessments and grades.

Hope for Christmas, which served 361 students and 121 families, helps students receive presents around the holidays that they would not receive otherwise. In addition, the district coordinates gift deliveries for families unable to attend the event.

Other programs and services provided to support at-risk students include after school tutoring, at-risk team meetings, the high school success center, community drug awareness programs, mobile food pantries and more.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past four years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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