Updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has led the Newton school district to discontinue the masking requirements on school buses, allow accessibility to drinking fountains and remove the phrase that indoor face-coverings “are recommended by the CDC” from its Return to Learn plan.
Members of the Newton school board on Feb. 28 passed the three alterations to the district’s Return to Learn plan in a 6-0 vote. Newton Superintendent Tom Messinger said the latest CDC guidance contains very few restrictions and requirements, allowing the district to resume some pre-pandemic practices.
In late January, the Newton Community School District removed its temporary masking requirements when sick absence rates were above 8 percent for two consecutive days. However, masks were still worn on buses and vans operated by public school systems, which was recommended by the CDC.
Custodial staff will now disinfect water fountains a minimum of once per day, following the school board’s approval of the Return to Learn plan changes. Although water fountain use will be made available in the buildings, the school district sees the benefits to having a number of water bottle filling stations.
Currently, each elementary building in Newton has one water bottle filling station, and there are multiple filling stations throughout the middle school and high school, Messinger said. The cost to install additional filling stations is about $1,500 each; the district is also pursuing grants to obtain more.
“We will continue to recommend students bring their own water bottles to use them. But not all students bring that water bottle with them each day,” he said.
Robyn Friedman, president of the NCSD Board of Education, said she is a big supporter of getting more water bottle filling stations in the district. Even before the pandemic, the cleanliness and germs spread through fountains probably was not the best for kids, she said. The filling stations seem more sanitary.
“I understand the importance of having accessible water to everyone and I’m not necessarily in disagreement with opening the water fountains, but I think also us moving forward with trying to find more grants to be able to have more filling stations … I do think that’s going to help germs spread less,” Friedman said.
From an educational standpoint, Messinger added, having water bottle filling stations “works far better.” Kids can fill their water bottles to take to class and drink whenever they need to, rather than taking time away from class. Staff will continue to encourage kids to use water bottles moving forward, he said.
With the language “recommended by the CDC” stricken from the district’s plan, masks are still option for students, staff or visitors at all buildings. But the plan still indicates students and staff that test positive for COVID-19 are to stay home for five days and can return to school with a mask for the remaining five days.
However, people who are unable to wear a mask, choose not to wear a mask or are immunocompromised should isolate for the full 10 days at home. Students or staff that ridicule or harass others for choosing to wear a mask or not may be subject to disciplinary action, according the district’s plan.
School board member Mark Thayer said it looks like the Newton school district is shifting back to “pre-pandemic normals” and asked Messinger if he felt it was necessary to continue reporting daily attendance figures. Messinger said the school still has to monitor sick absences.
“We still have the requirement on if it hits the 10 percent level, then it has to be reported to the Iowa Department of Public Health,” he said. “Reporting on them is the question. I don’t believe that those numbers tell us what we originally intended to set out to get from them because the numbers don’t tell us COVID.”
If the school district is utilizing resources to update the website, Thayer pondered if it should be something Newton discontinues. Messinger said it wouldn’t hurt his feelings at all. To some extent, Messinger added, the data is giving the district and the public such a minute amount of information.
“The effectiveness of it, in terms of a piece of useful information, really isn’t there,” he said. “I think that it tells us all a pretty good picture of how much illness is going through our schools, and we definitely have seen some highs and lows in that area. So, just as a snapshot, I think there’s some effectiveness to it.”
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org