MONTICELLO — COVID-19 discussion at last week’s Monticello school board meeting comprised about two-thirds of the 90-minute session.
Board members were told that, while cases in the school are higher so far this year compared to last fall, the number being sent home is about four times fewer per case due to changed close contact rules.
Two audience members spoke at the Sept. 15 session. Teaching assistant Megan Nichols said she was speaking for the 18 unvaccinated staff members, who will need to provide negative COVID tests weekly under new state mandate.
“I’m just here as a face and identity of an unvaccinated employee,” said Nichols, who added she underwent weekly testing as a former nursing home employee, and has never tested positive.
She said she has made a decision not to get the vaccine at this time, and asked the board to do what it could to make compliance as easy as possible.
“If we have to get tested weekly, if there could possibly be a connection with something local that will not be financially burdensome to us,” Nichols said.
School Superintendent Vic Zimmerman said onsite testing is on the way through Binax Now, but that it would likely be two more weeks before it is in place. Until that time, he said staff not vaccinated are “on their own to get a test.”
Board member Tara Grabarczyk said she has heard that getting test appointments close to home can be difficult.
“Trying to find an appointment time is incredibly difficult. Most of them are during the work day,” Grabarczyk said.
She asked if there was a local option that could be arranged for testing.
“You’ve outlined the challenges very well,” Zimmerman said, noting that those difficulties resulted in a two-week delay in the effective date for the state vaccination mandate.
Also COVID related, Zimmerman said Kirby Medical Center was approached about providing testing for school employees, but that they did not have enough staff to accommodate it.
The superintendent said he had additional concerns surrounding temporary restraining orders that have been granted for some individual students in four Illinois school districts.
The restraining orders say children covered by those orders do not need to follow school quarantine policies. That means the longest quarantine for those students is 48 hours that could be imposed by a health department.
Zimmerman said those restraining orders are for individual students only, but are beginning to affect entire school districts.
“Quincy schools, when they got their TRO from the judge that said (certain) kids could only be quarantined for 48 hours, Quincy said, ‘forget it. We’re not going to recommend quarantining for anybody.’
“They’re not doing contact tracing, and no one’s being quarantined in Quincy if they are close contacts. Only kids or employees that actually have COVID are actually required to quarantine by the health department,” Zimmerman said.
A pair of similar court cases in Southern Illinois have also resulted in TROs saying masking could not be mandated for students who are part of the restraining order.
“Those cases don’t apply to us, but it could be tried locally,” he added.
Zimmerman added the potential puts school systems in a precarious position: If a judge says mandates do not have to be followed, a school district could face severe state sanctions by not enforcing it.
So districts would need to make a choice between ignoring a judge or bucking the Illinois State Board of Education, which has already placed some school districts on probation for not enforcing a state masking mandate.
Also speaking to the board was Denise Jones, who requested the board use the same quarantining rules for those who have acquired natural immunity as it does for vaccinated students and staff.
“Basically, (studies) show that individuals who have acquired natural immunity from the infection itself had a superior immunity in comparison to the individuals who have received the vaccine,” Jones said. “So I would ask why the (school) plan only addresses vaccinated and unvaccinated. They’re excluding an entire group of people.”
Vaccinated close contacts of COVID cases at the school do not need to isolate. Unvaccinated close contacts are required to quarantine for 14 days, 10 days if they exhibit no symptoms, or seven days with a negative COVID-19 test.
“What I’m really asking you all to do is to seriously reconsider updating the plan to allow those individuals who do not want to get the vaccine to be able to provide you with scientific proof from a laboratory that they are able to have immunity and not be a danger,” Jones said.
Zimmerman said while he agrees with what Jones said regarding quarantine rules, the district has to follow the guidance of the Illinois Department of Public Health, which does not differentiate between those who have not been vaccinated and those who have contracted COVID-19.
COVID-related facts presented to the board:
—94 percent of school staff are fully vaccinated, with Zimmerman claiming that is higher than most other districts in the area;
—50 percent of high school students are fully vaccinated;
—So far this school year, there have been 2.25 close contacts quarantined for each case of COVID, compared to between eight and 10 close contacts per case last year. The difference is the distance considered close contact has decreased from 6 to 3 feet; and
—65 percent of Piatt County residents are fully vaccinated, a figure that has not risen much in recent weeks.