BUFFALO – A recent surge in COVID-19 close-contact exposures prompted the Altoona-Midway USD 387 Board of Education to act.
At Monday’s regular monthly meeting, the board enacted mandatory masking by a 6-0 margin. The school has reported five positive cases over a 10-day period, with the most recent of those coming into contact with a large swath of the student population. Those contacts exposed an additional 50-plus individuals in the district, according Interim Superintendent Mike Kastle. That figure represents roughly one-third of Altoona-Midway’s total K-12 student body.
Despite Kastle’s recommendations for a mandatory-masking policy to open the school year, the district has been operating without a mask mandate for the vast majority of the fall semester. It was enacted for staff Monday and for students Wednesday.
“It wasn’t as much a spike in COVID-19 (cases), but a spike of required quarantines because of the contacts,” Kastle said. “It spread pretty quick.”
Kastle said that some of the exposures occurred on buses and have impacted the football and volleyball teams. While the district did not previously have a masking measure in place, masks were required on district transportation in order to align with federal requirements.
As a result of those exposures, Altoona-Midway’s football program was forced to cancel last week’s contest, as well as the upcoming game on Friday. The volleyball team also had to cancel one contest and postpone another.
The board handed Kastle the reins to unilaterally rescind the mandate. This could occur if there’s a significant reduction in off-campus quarantines. If not, it will remain in place for at least 30 days.
“I have the authority to remove that mandate anytime between now and the (November 8) board meeting,” Kastle said.
Another path to masks being optional is increased testing.
“We’re going to do testing on site as soon as our material gets here,” Kastle said, noting that kits will be supplied through a KDHE grant program.
“I’m guessing we’re going to get 250 to 300 testing kits to start with. And then we have to reorder whenever we get low.”
Kastle said he has not yet determined a figure or percentage that would precipitate the return to optional masking.
“They surprised me with that on Monday night when the board said, ‘You can make the decision,’” he said.
Kastle said the best means of defense against the coronavirus are vaccines, masks and social distancing.
“So it wasn’t just masks; we’ve also gone to mandatory social distancing as much as possible,” he said. “I would tell concerned parents that we’re taking every precaution we can, which includes vaccines, mask-wearing, good hygiene and social distancing. All those steps that we can take are what we need to be doing.”
At his first board meeting as superintendent in July, Kastle said he took the position of mandatory-masking policy to open the school year. He said several parents were on-hand to speak during the public forum portion of the meeting, and convinced the board to go against state and federal masking recommendations.
“This is my assumption — there were some board members who were of the same ilk (as the parents who spoke),” he said. “So it was not something that was hotly contested.”
Despite it being a topic of discussion on the agenda, the board again failed to act on a masking mandate during the August and September regular monthly meetings. The warning signs were there, as the district experienced a minor outbreak early in the semester, according to Kastle.
“Between the September and (October) board meetings, we had a bunch of kids out — not having the disease itself, but close contact,” he said. “And we felt it was time to try to stem the tide.”
Helping pave the way for the newly-enacted mandate, Altoona-Midway fourth-grade instructor Helen Friederich spoke in favor of masking at Monday’s meeting.
“She spoke very passionately about putting masks on kids,” Kastle said, as he also presented data to the board members in hopes of swaying their opinion. “But I didn’t have to do much convincing.”
For the first day of masking Wednesday, Kastle said that virtually all students followed protocol.
“There was one student who had it down around her chin,” Kastle said. “I asked her to pull it up and she did. So we had very good compliance today.”
As far as quarantine procedures, the district has adhered to county and state guidelines, and many of the students were scheduled to be released from quarantine protocol on Wednesday.
“We’re hopeful that once we get the testing materials from KDHE we’ll be able to stem that high number of quarantines from close contact,” Kastle said.