ATHENS — As the Athens Area School District prepared to review a revised health and safety plan during a work session on Tuesday, several district residents voiced their opinions on the subject.

Smithfield resident Donna Thrush was the first to give comment, and she started by thanking the board members for all they do.

“I want to thank you because I know it’s a lot of time and a lot of work, and often a thankless job,” Thrush said.

Turning to the health and safety plan, Thrush asked that the board keep in mind that “a lot of Athens students and staff have already had COVID.”

“Any guidelines or protocols that differentiate between vaxxed and unvaxxed is ignoring the fact that those who were unvaxxed but got COVID do have antibodies and T cells,” said Thrush. “And it’s debatable, some people think even better than people who got a vaccine.”

Thrush acknowledged that the proposed revision for the health and safety plan did not differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated, and she said she hopes it stays that way.

Thrush went on to suggest that the board follow suit of other districts by keeping masks optional and allowing asymptomatic close contacts to stay in school.

She specifically mentioned the policies of Shamokin Area School District, which states that “non-symptomatic students and staff no longer are being required to quarantine,” and Palmyra Area School District, which says “students that are close contacts may attend school unless symptomatic.”

A statement was also submitted by Ulster resident Jan Hunsinger, who was unable to attend the meeting in person. Hunsinger offered Neshaminy School District as another example to look at for quarantine guidelines, as they simply require that “symptomatic students should not come to school and students with a pending COVID test should not come to school until results are known.”

Another statement was read from Ridgebury residents Bud and Deb Stringham, which noted that “the Canon-McMillan School District outside of Pittsburgh has a flowchart on their website that reads ‘asymptomatic close contacts need not quarantine, but testing is recommended five to seven days after contact.’”

The Stringhams shared that they would be in favor of a similar quarantine policy, as well as masks and testing being optional.

“We remain (of the opinion) that the parents’ choice and their discretion is to be upheld, as well as all exemptions — religious and medical the same,” said the Stringhams. “We know the task presented before you is hard and trying; please know that you are all continually in our thoughts and prayers.”

When East Athens resident Matt Cooper stepped up to the lectern, he said he would like to see talk of vaccination clinics removed from the health and safety plan.

“I think in this community we’ve done a good enough job of making vaccinations available throughout the community,” Cooper said. “There’s plenty of places to get vaccinations (and) those places are not overwhelmed. I don’t think that it’s necessary for the school district to provide those locations.”

Cooper went on to say that he feels providing vaccination clinic locations could bring greater foot traffic to the schools and risk an increase of potential exposure for students.

When the time came for board members to vote on the plan, Superintendent Craig Stage noted that “the whole purpose of this was to try to set ourselves up with some of the recommendations that have been shared from other school districts, in discussions with superintendents, in discussion with stakeholders throughout the state,” said Stage. “Obviously this is just the bar to start this discussion. This doesn’t have to be the final product.”

The board reviewed the changes in the proposed revision, which were found in section three of the health and safety plan.

Stage shared that under the universal and correct wearing of masks, “currently face coverings are recommended and encouraged but are the personal choice and preference of students and parents.”

Under modifying facilities to allow physical distancing, Stage said it was changed to read that “the Athens Area School District will promote physical distancing where possible.”

“That is probably the most accurate and honest statement we could make,” said Stage. “We have issues with class sizes, in terms of square footage and also the class size. Not all of our buildings have the same exact square footage for every classroom, and not every classroom has exactly the same number of students.”

According to Stage, the contact tracing/quarantine section of the plan received the most revisions. It now states the following bullet points:

The district will exclude from school any student or staff member who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing symptoms of COVID-19 in accordance with Title 28 PA Code Chapter 27.

The district will complete all PDE or PA DoH reporting of cases, as required.

A COVID dashboard will be regularly updated with current active COVID-19 positive cases and a weekly summary of COVID-19 cases and quarantines by building. This will be located on the district website.

COVID-19 positive students/staff will be excluded for a minimum of five days, and will be required to wear a mask for days six-10. COVID-19 positive students/staff cannot return until they are fever free, without medication, for at least 24 hours on or after day five.

Close contacts will be determined by using three feet when both parties are masked and six feet when one or both parties are unmasked.

Parents/guardians will be notified if their child is identified as a close contact.

Asymptomatic students/staff who were were determined to be a close contact will not be excluded from school, but will be required to wear a mask for 10 days and be asked to monitor for symptoms.

Symptomatic students/staff who are determined to be a close contact will be excluded from school for five days. They may return to school after day five, if they no longer have symptoms, but will be required to wear a mask for days six-10.

Household close contacts — students/staff who are living in a household with a COVID-19positive individual and cannot isolate from that individual will be required to quarantine for 10 days.

Parents may decide upon notification of close contact to exclude their students for the full 10 days. The absences for those dates of quarantine will be legal/excused absences.

Students who are unable/unwilling to wear a mask will complete the full 10 day quarantine at home. Absences for the dates of the quarantine will be considered legal/excused absences.

All students in quarantine will be provided access to all learning materials and support from the learning loss teacher.

Upon return from quarantine, students will have access to after-school tutoring to assist with lost instructional time.

The proposed revised plan can be found in full on the district’s website.

Stage thanked board members and administrators who shared their feedback during the development of the revised plan, and noted that the aim of the plan is to keep students in school.

“We’re not trying to abandon all safety (and) mitigation measures, however we do recognize through some of the observations that we’ve had since March of 2020 that keeping kids in school should be a priority,” said Stage, “and that while COVID is happening and students are getting COVID, our data suggests that it’s not exclusively happening within our school.”

Stage went on to say he believes the proposed revision takes a middle ground approach that can help keep students and staff safe, while keeping policies as nonrestrictive as possible.

“I do feel like the risk of COVID is very real,” said Stage. “But the value and reward of keeping students in school learning outweighs that.”

Several board members voiced their opinion on the proposed plan, indicating that they would prefer to see the policies and procedures align more with CDC guidance.

Board member Chris Jones asked that the revised plan be reviewed by district insurance providers to be sure that AASD will remain covered.

Since there were a few board members missing from Tuesday’s work session, the board decided to continue discussions at the January 25 meeting when all members are in attendance.

Erik Berggren can be reached at eberggren@morning-times.com or (570) 888-9643 ext. 231.

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