The St. James School District announced last week the new school year will begin at Level 2 (Yellow) of the Return to School Plan, which requires masking for all students, staff, and visitors. While Level 2 has additional restrictions the district could enforce, plans are currently only to add masking as a safety measure and the plan will be reviewed after two weeks.
“The current plan of action for the school district is to remain fully masked while indoors when social distancing cannot be maintained for the first 14 days of the school year,” Superintendent Tim Webster said in a statement. “Due to the high community positivity rates and the entire school community gathering for the first time after the summer break, we firmly believe this is the safest action plan.”
Masking began on August 12 for staff readying their rooms and training to begin the new school year. “On Monday, September 6, with the guidance of local health officials, a decision will be made on if masks can be removed based on community infection rate and the rate of positive cases and quarantines in our school district at that time,” Webster said.
Phelps County has seen a recent spike in active COVID-19 cases and school administrators have been in weekly contact with the Phelps-Maries County Health Department to determine the best course of action in safely getting students back in the classroom for the new school year.
“We have been in constant communication with local health officials. Per those conversations, I feel confident in saying waves or hotspots of COVID-19 have moved in seven to nine week timelines. The initial two weeks of masking should put our county near the end of this timeline. We hope that at that time, we can move into Level 1 (Green),” he explained.
“After the initial two weeks of entry, if the school rate of positive cases or quarantines in the school reaches eight percent or higher, masking will be required throughout the school year for 14 day periods until the rate falls below eight percent. The eight percent number has been designed keeping the following two factors in mind. A: Maintaining enough staff members to be able to hold in-person learning. B: If students’ attendance drops below 90 percent, DESE (Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) will not allow the district to count the day as an educational day,” Webster said.
The district wants to keep students in seats as it is the best form of learning, but to do so, extra precautions are being put in place to limit the spread of COVID-19 as best as possible while the area is experiencing higher positive cases. “I am confident that this plan can and will be scrutinized. However, I will always make my number one priority of all decisions made for the safety of all students and staff and, secondly, to provide the best education we can for our students,” he said.
“If we do not have staff members due to quarantines, we cannot provide the education your children deserve. If your child is not at school due to quarantines, we cannot give them the education they deserve. Masking does prevent health department quarantines for all but individuals who test positive,” he said.
Webster thanked the community for understanding as the district navigates these challenges again this year, hoping to make the best decisions to safeguard students and staff. “I am thankful to be a part of a supportive community to the school, and I hope if you agree or disagree with our plan, you can at least be at peace of mind that we are doing our best to keep students safe and provide them with a high-quality education,” he said.
While the district is only adding masking as part of Level 2 of the Return to Learn Plan, should positive cases and quarantines rise, the district could add restrictions to visitors in buildings, restrictions on activities taking place, and capacity and attendance limits for events and activities throughout the district. The district doesn’t believe those additions are necessary at this time and hope to remove the mask requirement after the first two weeks of the school year.
Information on the status of the Return to Learn plan, as well as what the three levels of the plan include, are all available on the school district’s website at www.stjschools.org. The district will also make updates on the St. James R-1 School District Facebook page and other social media throughout the school year to keep parents and students up to date on all decisions.