Schools taking aggressive stance on COVID-19

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Pawhuska Board of Education on Monday night voted 3-0 to approve a Return to Learn Plan that mandates an aggressive approach to attempting to prevent the spread of COVID-19. In part, the plan mandates that all students, teachers, other school district employees, and campus visitors must wear masks.

Board members Addie Roanhorse, Mike Tolson and Jean Ann Simmons voted to approve the plan. Board members Scott Laird and Tom Boone were absent due to work responsibilities. Tolson encouraged holding another meeting next week to review the latest available information about the local spread of COVID-19. Pawhuska Public Schools has formed a COVID-19 task force to make recommendations to the board. That task force includes medical professionals along with educators.

Pawhuska is scheduled to begin the 2020-21 school year on Aug. 20, and Superintendent David Cash said Monday night that about 25 percent of the district’s students will be enrolled only in distance learning. Cash said he anticipates that percentage may grow. Cash said school district administrators had toughened their reopening plan based on conversations with local physician Cameron Rumsey, who shared with them details about what he has been seeing in the Pawhuska area in regard to the spread of COVID-19.

Rumsey was present Monday night and answered questions for board members in preparation for their vote on the Return to Learn Plan.

“The simple answer is yes. I believe masks are mandatory,” Dr. Rumsey said in response to a query about whether teachers and students and others in the schools should be required to wear masks to contain the spread of COVID-19. Rumsey added that the issue is “not really debatable.” He said that he doesn’t like wearing masks himself, but does it anyway.

Rumsey encouraged the board of education to view numbers of positive tests for COVID-19 in Osage County from a preventative standpoint.

“Obviously the numbers aren’t that terrible,” he said, commenting on statistics that included 11 deaths in the county through Monday. “We want to keep things the way they are.”

Rumsey encouraged strict adherence to school district protocols for preventing COVID-19, cautioning school officials that lax adherence can lead to outbreaks of illness. He also encouraged the school district to insist on as much social distancing as possible.

“Well, four feet apart is better than one foot apart,” he said, arguing that it is important not to give up on distancing just because six-foot gaps may not always be possible.

Asked if bandanas are an acceptable substitute for masks, he said bandanas are not as good as masks but can still be helpful.

“The bandanas will still block big droplets,” he said.

Rumsey told the board that the ability of Pawhuska schools, and of Osage County generally, to stem the spread of the illness will depend on behavior, and preventing an outbreak in the schools is much preferable to trying to figure out how to stop one after it has begun.

“There is no great plan to stop an outbreak once you have one in your school system,” Rumsey said.

Cash said the school district will be monitoring COVID-19 spread information on a continual basis, with a view toward being as flexible as possible in responding. He added Monday that there is no activity, however much it may be popular with the public, that he is unwilling to suspend or stop in order to prevent illness.

“If we have an outbreak with football, we will shut down football,” he said. Cash said the school district has spent perhaps $25,000 in the past two months on materials related to preventing COVID-19, and it will probably spend more. He anticipated the school system will maintain a larger custodial staff for cleaning and disinfection purposes during the upcoming school year than it has in the past.