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As has been well publicized, at a special meeting Thursday, January 20, the Mount Ayr Community board of directors voted unanimously to cancel classes and all extra-curricular activities Monday, January 24 through Wednesday, January 26 due to excessive student and staff absences at both the elementary school and middle/high school.
Furthermore, the board voted 3-2 to require the wearing of masks on school property including attendance at activities beginning Friday, January 21 through February 4. Directors Brandi Shay, Russell Schuitema, and PJ West voted in favor while members Craig Winemiller and Zach Lynch voted no.
While all absences were not attributed solely to COVID, data shared at Thursday’s meeting revealed a spike in positive COVID tests over the past two weeks.
From January 1-8, only two elementary students, three middle/high school students and one staff member in each building had tested positive.
The following week, January 9-15, postive numbers rose to 10 elementary students, 30 middle/high school students, and two staff members in each building.
The week of the special meeting, January 16-22, the positive numbers spiked further – 17 elementary students, 21 middle/high school students, and three staff members in each building.
Positive cases in Mount Ayr schools totaled 96 through the first three weeks of the second semester compared to 102 positive cases for the entire 15 weeks of first semester.
The COVID spike coupled with the resulting quarantines along with the typical winter-time colds and flu resulted in student absenteeism at the elementary school of 19 percent and 16 percent at the middle/high school on Wednesday, January 19.
Elementary principal Chris Elwood spoke to absences in his building.
“The last four days we’ve had 80 kids [absent], 93, 87, 82 … yeah, it’s not all COVID, but it doesn’t matter. It’s absence,” he said. “This is just unprecedented… in my previous years we’ve never had more than 45 kids gone at once. We’re double that.”
Staff shortages compounded the problem with eight elementary staff members absent on Thursday due to illness, care-giving, or other reasons.
District nurse Stacey Andresen provided absence numbers at the high school – 66 on Monday, 62 Tuesday, 53 Wednesday.
Any absences due to illness above 10 percent, she said, must be reported to the Iowa Department of Public Health.
“Friday [January 14]I recorded my first 10 percent here at the high school, and I probably could have done it on Thursday,” Andresen said. “We were 14 percent at the high school Friday … then our elementary ramped up on Monday. I reported 12 percent at the elementary and 22 percent at the high school … Absent to illness, not just COVID.”
“I want to hear why we don’t close school,” said board member PJ West. “We have all this data, we’re not going to change the vaccination status in this county, we’re not going to get people to mask up … People are like why is this so hard for us to make a decision on what’s best for our kids and what’s best for our teachers … we have to do something different.”
The discussion for the remainder of the meeting surrounded what that “something different” look like.
The closing of school for a period of time was a main point, but many questions swirled around the logistics of any closing.
Should the closing take effect the following day, January 21? Or should it begin Monday?
How many days should the cancellation last? Friday through Monday? Monday through Wednesday? A full week? Would any number of days actually make a difference in the absenteeism?
What about student activities such as district speech and the John J. Harris Wrestling Tournament, both on Saturday?
As stated earlier, the board eventually agreed with the closing for three days along with the suspension of activities during that time.
In addition, in a letter to district families, Superintendent Shaffer stated, “We plan to add staff to clean even more nightly. Add staff to help teachers catch students up as they return healthy and help give some relief to our staff who have gone over ‘Above and Beyond.’”
The latest information provided by the school district related to COVID can be found on the Return-2-Learn page located at https://sites.google.com/mtayrschools.org/macsreturn2learn/home.