By MARK EVANS
Ste. Genevieve R-II students will all be wearing some type of face coverings for at least another month.
During a nearly three-hour meeting Sept. 21 the board of education voted 7-0 to extend the mask mandate, which had been passed at a special Sept. 3 meeting.
This time, however, the wording was changed from “masks” to “face coverings,” to make it clear that plastic face shields are acceptable alternatives.
About a dozen patrons spoke during the public input segment of the meeting. Like the Sept. 3 meeting, the speakers were more or less evenly divided on the issue.
Sixteen had spoken at the Sept. 3 meeting.
BOSNER GIVES EXPERT INPUT
Dr. Matthew Bosner, Ste. Genevieve County Memorial Hospital chief of staff and a county health board member, also addressed the board, sharing statistics and information.
In August, he said, the district had 258 cases. Twenty days into September, the month’s total was already at 155 cases.
“That’s a huge increase in the last couple of months,” he said. “The other big change … is the change in the demographics of the cases.”
During the first wave in 2020, he said, most of those infected and those hospitalized. “middle-aged and elderly.”
The demographics of the Delta variant are different from the original strain, which hardly affected children.
“It’s shifted significantly down in age,” Bosner said.
In data the hospital has collected, there have been 316 positive cases since May, the peak is in the 30-60 age group, with 63 of the 316 being below age 18, or about 22 percent. This is in line with statewide cases.
“That’s significantly different than the early surge we had last year,” Bosner said.
He also added that statistics tend to “under-measure” results because not everyone gets tested.
Of 26 confirmed deaths in the county, some come in late, he said. In fact, two cases from January and February just came in.
Bosner also urged people to look at the possible harm the virus might cause victims down the road.
“We don’t know the long-term consequences of this,” he said. “We don’t know what the consequences are going to be in five or 10 years.”
He compared the situation to smoking.
“When I grew up, everybody smoked. My parents smoked; everybody in the community smoked,” Bosner said.
He noted that people smoked in all public and private places, unaware of the dangers of second-hand smoke, even after the danger of smoking itself became known in the 1960s.
“To say that this disease is not critical, we don’t know that,” he said. “We won’t know that for 10 or 20 years.”
Bosner stressed the importance of three preventative steps: 1. frequent hand-washing, 2. masks, and 3. vaccination.
“Basically, the flu didn’t exist last year,” he said. “We had two cases of Influenza A and we had no reported cases of Influenza B. That’s unheard of for this county. And that’s all because of mask-wearing.”
A viral pathogen called RSV dropped way off last year, too, but is coming back, Bosner said.
He called mask-wearing “imperative.” He also noted that masks should be two-layered, without vents.
Some school statistics were then shared. During the 2020-21 school year there were two positive cases among students in August, eight in September, 39 in October and a peak of 60 in late November. It dropped off to 20 in December and January and to just one in February.
This fall the chart is starting at a higher point, with 20 cases in August and 49 cases so far in September.
On Nov. 12, 2020, the state of Missouri approved masks as a mitigating measure. It was after the mask mandate that the figures began falling. Likewise, quarantines fell from a high in November to much lower figures in December and beyond.
When school started this fall, masks were merely “strongly recommended.” In the seven school days in August, 42 students had to be quarantined, or six per day.
Through 13 school days in September, there were two days where they were only recommended. There were 21 quarantines those days, or 10.5 per day. In the 11 days since masks have been required, there were 26 quarantines, a drop to just 2.4 quarantines per day.
DISTRICT TRYING TO BE FLEXIBLE
After the data was presented, Dr. Julie Flieg, superintendent of schools, shared some thoughts.
“I’m not for masks; I’m not against masks,” she said. “I’m about finding ways to keep kids in school.”
She said she is talking to neighboring school districts and the county health department and is keeping abreast of alternative measures that are being tried elsewhere.
However, she noted that, “We’re just not there in Ste. Gen. County yet,” to be able to try any creative measures.
Flieg said she and personnel from the county health department had taken part in conference calls with the Center For Disease Control (CDC) and the Missouri Division of Senior Services (DSS) to discuss options.
“We’re talking about it,” she said. “I just need you to be a little patient while I’m figuring it out. That’s all I’m asking.”
Flieg, an SGHS graduate, who taught at the middle school one year (1996-97) and six years at the high school before moving into administration, stressed again her personal connection to the difficult issue.
“As an employee of this district for a long time, teacher, building principal, district level, I’ve lost kids,”she said. “I’ve watched kids commit suicide, I’ve watched kids die in car accidents. My sons lost their best friend to a farming accident. I suffer. I don’t want to see that happen to our children anymore.
“So, I’m asking you to give me a little more time to work with our county health department, to work with the other counties and we’ll try to figure out if there’s another alternative.”
She also addressed the concerns that have been expressed about students supposedly having to have masks on seven hours a day and for kindergartners having to have them on at all times.
“I’m going to say no,” she said. “I know I get a lot of question about kindergartners [having to wear masks]. We have them wear them in the gym or the cafeteria in the morning because it’s not socially distanced. When they’re in the hallway they wear them.
“But when they’re in the classroom we have Plexiglas.”
She asked if students are required to wear masks several hours a day in middle school or high school.
Dr. Scott Mercer, middle school principal said he “would be surprised” if any students wear masks for five-to-seven hours, listing various situations where they are not required.
Dr. John Boyd, Jr., new high school principal, said that a lot of teachers take students outside when possible.
He also noted that the high school is “lucky enough” that several classes are small enough in size that social distancing is possible within the classroom. He also said that physical education and body conditioning classes do not require masks.
In answering a board member’s question, Flieg said that the school has worked with any students who were having physical or emotional difficulties wearing a mask.
Board member Geri Diesel, retired teacher and administrator, said she “toured around” and visited with students, teachers and administrators and got a new understanding of how the mandate was being enforced. She thanked the administrators and faculty for their “creativity” in handling the situation.
“I just kind of expected to walk in and see everybody with a mask all day long,” she said. Instead, the Plexiglas and smaller groups allowed many to safely avoid masking up.
She called this “encouraging.”
“Is it perfect? No, absolutely not,” she said, adding she agreed with Flieg that more time to look at options was a good idea.
“I think at the end of the day, no one in this room wants kids to wear masks indefinitely or even more than maybe a few months, and in the most limited of situations that they can,” she said.
“I felt like we were a district that had some kind of a hybrid model,” Diesel added, which she said “sits a little better” with her.