Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

School district to recommend, not require, masks for fall

Thursday, July 29, 2021
Article Image Alt Text

Public school students in Lincoln Parish are three weeks away from kicking off the 2021-22 academic year, marking the third school year affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though they appear less strict than the previous year, the school system still has a full slate of virus mitigation guidelines for students and employees, published as the “Ready to Achieve Plan.”

Adapted from the Louisiana Department of Education’s pack of guidelines of the same name, Lincoln Parish’s plan features a few key differences, chiefly where masking is involved.

This year masks are recommended for unvaccinated students in grades 3-12 while inside a school building, as well as unvaccinated employees, but they will not be mandated.

The state’s latest guidelines recommend that everyone — except those with breathing difficulties — age five and up wear a mask while inside a school building, regardless of vaccination status, falling in line with a recent Centers for Disease Control announcement saying much the same in the wake of rising cases of the Delta variant of the virus.

But this year the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education isn’t forcing those recommendations on local school systems, opting to let them set their own rules on masking and distancing.

Lincoln Parish Schools Superintendent Ricky Durrett said that while the hope is that many will choose to wear masks, he wants that to be a parental choice.

“We have a lot of strong beliefs about masks on both sides,” Durrett said. “We think that’s a decision that should be made in the home.”

The only people who will be required to wear masks in Lincoln Parish schools are unvaccinated bus operators and bus aids, though it is “highly recommended” that all students do the same while on the bus.

This also differs from the state’s guidelines, which say all passengers on the school bus must wear a face covering as required by an executive order issued by President Joe Biden in January.

Lisa Bastion, the former assistant superintendent now taking the title of Chief Pandemic Officer, said administration intentionally avoided saying that masks were “optional” in the guidelines, but rather that they’re “recommended.”

One reason for that is the more unvaccinated, unmasked students a school has, the more likely it is that a positive case of COVID-19 will result in multiple other students having to quarantine at home.

Last year the definition of a “close contact” who would have to go into quarantine was anyone who was within 6 feet of a positive COVID-19 case for at least 15 minutes.

That’s still the case now, but only for unvaccinated, unmasked students and employees.

“We may have more kids having to quarantine if they choose not to wear a mask,” Durrett said.

Those who qualify as a close contact will have to go into quarantine for 10 days, unless they receive a negative test result on or after day five, in which case they can return on day eight since exposure.

Luckily, classes will be able to continue using the virtual teaching methods that were advanced during the early days of the pandemic in order to reach students who have to quarantine or miss school for other reasons.

The fully virtual school program that was offered last school year will no longer be available, however. Students who qualify for homebound services will still receive them as before the pandemic.

Durrett said he does not anticipate that classrooms will have to be adjusted for spacing much more than normal.

“Our class sizes aren’t that big anyway, so spacing won’t be too different from normal,” he said. “It won’t be 6 feet, but it’ll be a good 3 feet in most cases.”

Employees will not be required to get the COVID vaccine, something Durrett and Bastion said the local school board wouldn’t have the power to enact on its own.

They estimate that by the time school starts, some 60-65% of the district’s employees will be vaccinated. That’s much higher than the total vaccination rate in Lincoln Parish, which stands at just a little over 30%.

In accordance with state guidelines, the local Ready to Achieve Plan includes cleaning high-traffic and high-touch areas in school facilities at least twice daily, minimizing crowds at entryways, designating an isolation area for students who fall ill during the school day, and continuing contact tracing efforts when students or employees test positive.

For now, only essential visitors will be allowed on school campuses, such as professionals performing observations, interventions or mental health consultations, though the document notes that this limitation may change.

Students return to school on Aug. 19, three weeks from today. On Wednesday Durrett said the district won’t be changing its COVID plans for at least two weeks while it waits to see what, if any, further action is taken by Gov. John Bel Edwards during that time.