By Nikki McKim
At the end of September, several students at Falls City Public Schools were asked to quarantine after a fellow student tested positive for COVID-19. At the time, the quarantine of so many students left some parents and community members asking if the measures taken were ‘too extreme.’
The Journal spoke with Southeast District Health Department’s Grant Brueggemann, about the measures taken and how parents and students can avoid such issues in the future.
Brueggemann started by saying that all schools get the same treatment in the district. The decision to quarantine is entirely based on the circumstances of the case and methodology followed by Nebraska’s Directed Health Measures. Masking and social distancing are also taken into account.
“I can’t speak to the specifics on Falls City School cases,” said Brueggemann. “I can assure you there were many meetings with the administration and our team. We try to work through the process of what makes sense legally and what makes sense in terms of the students and the community. It’s all based off the case investigation. We’re only able to make decisions based off the information we receive.”
Brueggemann explained that the CDC says that masking doesn’t preclude quarantine, and it isn’t because masking doesn’t prevent or limit the spread of COVID.
“It’s definitely beneficial and there’s plenty of research out there that says everyone should wear a mask,” said Brueggemann. He said it comes down to the fact that the general public isn’t trained to wear protective equipment like healthcare professionals are. The general public touches their face and is wearing cloth masks and may not be cleaning their masks after each use. “It’s something that we keep in consideration when we’re talking with cases,” said Brueggemann.
He said for the schools, the current Direct Health Measures include three masking scenarios in the classroom setting.
1) If a confirmed case and all the contacts in a classroom are wearing masks, the contacts only need to self-monitor, not quarantine.
2) If there is any contact or any positive case that’s not wearing a mask in a setting, all those close contacts go into quarantine.
3) If any close contacts aren’t wearing a mask, but a positive case is, all those close contacts quarantine.
“If there’s any lapse in masking from the case or contact, the contacts are likely to be quarantined,” said Brueggemann.
Masks are recommended by the CDC and Health Departments as a barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the mask coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice. This is called source control. This recommendation is based on what is known about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, paired with emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies showing that masks reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth. COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another, so the use of masks is particularly essential in settings where people are close to each other or where social distancing is challenging to maintain.
Masks should be washed regularly. It is important to always remove masks correctly and wash your hands after handling or touching a used mask.
You can include your mask with your regular laundry. Use regular laundry detergent and the warmest appropriate water setting for the cloth used to make the mask. You can also wash your mask by hand. (Please go to the CDC website to read how to prepare a proper washing solution for hand washing your mask) Make sure to dry the mask after washing thoroughly.
“If we could practice social distancing, if we could do masking, if we could avoid large events, crowds and indoor gatherings, we wouldn’t need this vaccine,” said Brueggemann.
Last Thursday, October 8, the Nebraska State Education Association (NSEA) issued a strongly worded messaged to Nebraska school districts calling on them to “require the use of face coverings by all staff and students” and putting districts on notice that ignoring that advice could lead to “significant legal liability.”
NSEA sent a letter to all Nebraska school district superintendents noting that the state’s Sept. 1 Directed Health Measure (DHM) added educators to the list of “essential employees” and mandated that teachers and other school employees are now “exempted from certain quarantine requirements if they, among other things, wear face coverings.”
Students are also no longer required to quarantine if face coverings were used at the time of a close contact with someone who is symptomatic or positive with COVID-19.
“Both exceptions,” said NSEA President Jenni Benson, “clearly focus on the presence of face coverings.
“The science and data are clear: The spread of COVID-19 is minimized when everyone wears face coverings. School districts that do not require students to wear face coverings are unreasonably and needlessly exposing students and staff to COVID-19,” said Benson. “Lack of action in that regard also exposes the district to legal liability.”
Benson noted that in September, the president of the insurance pool that provides liability coverage for many Nebraska school districts advised that school districts “should make sure they have a good COVID-19 plan and pay attention to health department directives.”
Benson said “The NSEA considers notice of a quarantine exception and mandatory face coverings as a minimum standard of care necessary to satisfy every school district’s legal duty to protect employee health and safety.
“School districts that do not require the use of face coverings for all students and staff, or that fail to notify employees when others in their work environment remain in the school building pursuant to DHM quarantine expectations, subject the district and those responsible, including administration and board members, to potentially significant legal liability.”
(NSEA letter to Superintendents follows)
Jenni Benson, NSEA President; Maddie Fennell, NSEA Executive Director RE: Directed Health Measures, Children’s Fund
It has come to our attention that several school districts do not require the use of face coverings despite medical recommendations and current Directed Health Measures (DHM). The science and data are clear: The spread of COVID-19 is minimized when everyone wears face coverings. Educa-tional workers are now exempted from certain quarantine requirements if they, among other things, wear face coverings. Students are also no longer required to quarantine if face coverings were used at the time of a close contact with someone who is symptomatic or positive with COVID-19. Both exceptions focus on the presence of face coverings.
School districts that do not require students to wear face coverings are unreasonably and needless-ly exposing students and staff to COVID-19. It is the expectation of the NSEA that school districts require the use of face coverings by all staff and students.
The NSEA also expects school districts to inform employees when others in their work environment remain in the school building pursuant to the DHM quarantine exceptions. The NSEA considers no-tice of a quarantine exception and mandatory face coverings as a minimum standard of care neces-sary to satisfy every school district’s legal duty to protect employee health and safety.
Navigating our school communities through these unprecedented times requires science-based decision making and respect for personal health decisions. Employee confidence in the measures used to protect their health and safety will promote and secure the educational mission of our schools. School districts that do not require the use of face coverings for all students and staff or that fail to notify employees when others in their work environment remain in the school building pursuant to DHM quarantine expectations subject the district and those responsible, including ad-ministration and board members, to potentially significant legal liability.
As always, NSEA stands ready to assist and advocate for our public schools, students and staff. As we move into the winter months, I want to remind you that the NSEA Children’s Fund is available to help students in need. From providing funds for a warm coat, mittens or shoes to helping to meet more complex needs, NSEA’s Children’s Fund will work to ensure that the physical, social and emo-tional needs of students do not stand in the way of their success in school. There is never red tape or lengthy delay for NSEA members who want to use the fund to help a student. A simple toll-free call to the NSEA (800-742-0047) is usually all that is needed. All requests are handled discreetly and confidentially. More information can be found at https://www.nsea.org/childrensfund.
Thank you for the work you do in support of our public schools, students and staff. Working togeth-er and vigilantly following health and safety protocols will provide all Nebraskans with the best chance at beating this pandemic.
cc: Dr. Matt Blomstedt, Commissioner of Education
Dr. Mike Dulaney, Nebraska Council of School Administrators John Spatz, J.D., Nebraska Association of School Boards