Gasconade R-2 implements new COVID plan, test-to-stay option on hold due to supply shortages

By Roxie Murphy, Staff Writer
Posted 1/12/22

Area school districts were expected to implement board-updated COVID-19 response plans following their return to classes after the Christmas break last week. Instead, they have been slammed with a …

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Gasconade R-2 implements new COVID plan, test-to-stay option on hold due to supply shortages

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Area school districts were expected to implement board-updated COVID-19 response plans following their return to classes after the Christmas break last week. Instead, they have been slammed with a shortage of Test-to-Stay kits and new COVID-19 guidelines.

The Gasconade County R-2 School District returned to classes on Jan. 5 expecting to implement a new Safe Return to School Continuity Plan passed on Dec. 20 by the board of education. The board was forced to create their own plan without recommendations from the local health department because of a Cole County court case in November that determined only elected boards could implement COVID-19 restrictions.

The start of the second semester was also supposed to mark the beginning of an optional Test-to-Stay Program. The program allows students exposed to the virus at school, but are without symptoms, to access free testing kits that would allow them to avoid isolation. The Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) has announced a shortage in kits as COVID-19 numbers are on the rise with the new Omicron variant. 

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) advised Gasconade County R-2 officials on Jan. 6 to reserve the kits for staff members.

Gasconade County R-2 Superintendent Dr. Jeri Kay Hardy mentioned both DHSS and DESE recommendations.

“All the information I am giving you right now will say ‘at this time,’” Hardy said on Jan. 7 referring to the fluidity of the situation. “We have not sent students home. I think we have six staff members that are positive.”

That number increased to 10 on Monday.

Gasconade R-2 is operating under DESE advice to only use test kits for staff due to the shortage. That does not mean that a student or staff member with symptoms will not be sent home even with a negative COVID-19 test.

“If we have to test you, that means you are exhibiting two or more symptoms,” Hardy said. “Under EBB wellness policy, violation, you have to go home until your symptoms begin to improve. Or if you go to the doctor and find another way to explain your symptoms. If the doctor says the reason you have a runny nose and headache is because you have allergies, you get to come back. If you have strep, you get antibiotics and the symptoms get better, come back.”

Hardy further explained a DESE email on Jan. 6 recommended testing students who show severe symptoms if test kits are available. 

“If a student has symptoms and tests negative for COVID, they are still sick,” Hardy said. “They will still have to go home until symptoms subside. Originally we could use the tests on asymptomatic students also. Now if they have to test, they are sick and they are under policy EBB and they have to stay home until the symptoms go away.”

EBB is not a new concept.

“Last time EBB was updated was May 21, 2012,” she said. “This is the same policy we would use for the flu and things like that. We use it for kids. We have used it with staff members that were exhibiting symptoms. But there is not a big demand for it.”

If Test-to-Stay kits are available parents would have to sign-off before their child/children may be tested. Hardy said that is not an option right now, though, due to the test shortage.

“The email today (from DHSS) said that there is a shortage of tests and to use sparingly,” Hardy said on Friday. “We have always said they need to have symptoms.”

DHSS is hoping that there won’t be a test kit shortage for long so that Test-to-Stay will resume.

Hardy said she is unsure what the board of education will choose to adopt as information and recommendations could change between now and the next board meeting on Jan. 18. DESE’s last email to the district was sent at 3:52 p.m. on Jan. 6.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has also changed its guidelines regarding COVID isolation.

“The CDC relaxed their recommendations,” Hardy said. “It’s a five-day quarantine and five-day mask recommendation, but we have a board-adopted policy which is a 10-day quarantine. So until our next board meeting, we have to follow (our) policy, being 10 days (isolation period).”

Hardy said the Gasconade R-2 COVID committee will meet to discuss the changes, but the board of education would not.

New CDC guidelines include more documentation according to Hardy.

“The document is created on day zero, so really it is a six-day quarantine,” she said. “Then it’s five days in quarantine and five days masking.”

Hardy added that the Gasconade R-2 School District is self-tracing for COVID-19 cases.

“Other districts have a lot of people out,” Hardy said, specifically referring to the Southern Boone County School District that was forced to close due to staffing shortages.

“We are doing pretty good,” Hardy added. “Our attendance was above 90 percent at all schools (as of Friday afternoon). One of the elementary schools was at 86 percent attendance, which is still pretty good.”

Hardy mentioned that another district reported a 46 percent substitute teacher fill rate. Gasconade R-2 currently has an 86 percent substitute fill rate.

“We are still asking for subs,” she said. “Even in non-covid years, we need subs.” 

In neighboring Maries County R-2, Superintendent Dr. Lenice Basham said on Friday that there are currently five positive COVID-19 cases and 21 students in isolation due to out-of-school exposure.

“No one has used the (test-to-stay) program,” Basham said on Jan. 7. “The Department of Health and Senior Services has reported that they will not have tests to ship to schools.”

The free-test shortage is problematic as the new Continuity Plan specifically mentions that test-to-stay is an option. Basham said the district is allowing an alternative option.

“Parents can provide a home test for students to stay,” she said.

If DHSS does send any tests in the near future, they will not be used for students.

“Due to the test shortage, any tests received will be used for staff to determine if they can stay at school,” Basham says. “No one has used the program (to date). We have not had anyone exposed at school.”

The recommendation to reserve tests for staff and teachers is from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE).

District officials are still reporting exposures and isolations on its COVID-19 Dashboard located on the MariesR2.org webpage. The dashboard is updated on Tuesday and Friday at the end of the school days.

The district is not in contact with the health department in regards to positive cases.

“Parents are notifying the school at this point,” Basham said.

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