Rockwood will extend mask mandate through Feb. 3 to address rising COVID numbers


Pooja Reddy

At the Freshman Orientation on Aug. 19, 2021, Class of of 2025 members were required to wear masks as they learned about the school. The mask mandate has been in place for a year since the return to school on Nov. 12, 2020, following the COVID-19 outbreak. There was a short break from the mandate in the summer of 2021 when infection numbers in the area dropped significantly.

The Rockwood Board of Education (BOE) has voted to extend the district’s existing mask mandate until Feb. 3 in response to rising COVID-19 cases across the district. Data shared by Interim Superintendent Tim Ricker during the special board meeting on Jan. 11 revealed that the district had 1,337 new reported COVID-19 cases in the period between Dec. 22 and Jan. 10, compared to 942 COVID-19 cases between Aug. 24 and Dec. 21.

“The Omicron variant and the new CDC recommendations are really why we’re coming together for some administrative recommendations,” Ricker said during the special board meeting.

Initially, on Dec. 16, the board voted to change its the mask mandate for the first day of second semester, Jan. 18 and instead make masks strongly recommended. The updated Rockwood Safe Together plan also mandated that any school with 4% or more students and staff out of the building with positive COVID-19 tests or at home with symptoms after close contact would reinstate the mask mandate for at least two weeks. Any buildings with a 2% rate would put mitigation strategies in place. Those could include more social distancing or other plans.

As of Jan. 12, the administration reported Lafayette having 103 students and staff out with positive cases, over 4% of the building population. Several other schools like Marquette and Rockwood Summit were also past the 4% benchmark.

In response to the rising cases, Ricker shared a proposed revision Rockwood Safe Together plan that would extend the mask mandate to Feb. 3, at which point the administration will share data with the BOE regarding the effectiveness of this strategy. At the Jan. 11 special meeting held virtually, the BOE voted 4-2 to approve the plan. Board member Keith Kinder was not present.

Board member Randy Miller was one of two members who voted against the revision to the plan, arguing that the district’s original plan to reinstate the mask mandate following 4% positive cases in schools would protect students enough.

At the Jan. 11 meeting, Miller said, “If you stick to the current plan, I think it’s easier for the community to see where their particular school is going to be. Looking at the 2 weeks we are going to have following right now, you can almost guarantee that all these schools are going to be masked still, so I guess I don’t see the need to change the plan.”

However, Board member Tammy Rhomberg who voted to approve the proposed extension said extending the mask mandate will keep it consistent across the district.

“I believe we have to look at the big picture of mitigating that we don’t go to those levels. One of the things that has kept our levels down is that we have been masking. Until we get through this latest episode, I think it would be to the benefit of our students, staff and family to extend that so across the district, there is no question about masking,” Rhomberg said.

Board president Jaime Bayes and members Lynne Midyett and Loralee Mondl also voted for the extension. Thomas Dunn voted against the decision along side Miller.

Freshman Aaliyah Grammer is in support of the mask decision as recent COVID cases in the district have risen.

“I personally think the district should do it. Masks are uncomfortable, but considering that we are running out of teachers and a whole bunch of kids are getting sick, I think people that want to wear their masks would feel safer if everyone did because masks only work if everyone has them on,” Grammer said.

Others, like senior Kevin Cho, would continue to wear a mask regardless of the BOE’s decision.

“Honestly, regardless of the mandate, I’ll probably keep wearing a mask anyway. The district’s decision doesn’t affect me at all. Personally, I don’t like mandating things, but I recognize why they have to do it,” Cho said.

Still, many students disagree with the extended mandate, where some have said masks should be the choice of an individual student.

“I don’t like that we have to wait an extra couple of weeks [for the mandate to possibly end]. I think we have been wearing them in school so long that it should be the students’ decision. I don’t think it’s fair that the school is making decisions for the kids,” sophomore Nick Boschert said.

Junior Megan Blessing agrees with Boschert, also saying masks are inefficient.

“Honestly, I hate it. I think it’s stupid. I don’t think the mask does anything. The masks don’t really do anything. It’s a thin cloth with holes in them and you’re going to be breathing in stuff anyways. They [masks] are protecting you from literally nothing. The new ruling was that it was going to be mask-optional. So, if you wanted to wear a mask, you could. You were not going to be forced [to wear a mask]. But now they are forcing us to wear masks, even if we don’t want to. I don’t see why they [the BOE] had to do this again,” she said.

Along with the extension of the mask mandate, the newly approved plan also includes new quarantine rules.

A student or staff member who tests positive will be required to stay home for five days. They may return to school after five days if they are asymptomatic or their symptoms are resolving, specifically if they have been without a fever for at least 24 hours.

If a student or staff member comes into close contact with someone who tests positive, they may remain in school if they are asymptomatic. If they show symptoms, they will also be required to stay at home. They can also return after five days if they are asymptomatic or are without a fever for 24 hours, if they have a diagnosis for their symptoms other than COVID-19 or if they produce a negative COVID-19 test that is not a home test.

“In our weekly calls with local health officials, we were encouraged to accept positive home tests, but not negative home tests because it is more likely to get a false negative [result] versus a false positive,” Executive Director of Communications Mary LaPak said.

In October 2021, the district entered into a contract with Maxim Healthcare Staffing Solutions Inc. to provide extended contact tracing operations for the district. The contract called for employees of Maxim to be sent to each Rockwood middle school and high school to assist school nurses and administrators with contact tracing. However, due to staffing shortages, Maxim has been unable to start providing employees for contact tracing.

“I don’t believe [contact tracing services from Maxim have] ever taken place and that’s kind of resulted in the administrators having to run around and do contact tracing,” Associate Principal Mike Franklin said.

Franklin also mentioned that administrators and nurses are swamped by the current amount of contact tracing.

“It is pretty much all we’ve been doing. The nurse’s office is like a train station, with people giving them test results in addition to all the other kids who have issues throughout the day,” Franklin said.

Since the increase in cases, nurse Kaylin Zimmer has said it has been busy.

“It’s been a lot. There’s only two of us, but we’ve had lots of help from grade level secretaries and principals,” she said.

For students afraid of the recent increase in COVID-19 cases, Zimmer recommended following safety protocols.

“Make sure [students] stay home when they’re sick and wear their mask because there are other viruses out there besides COVID like the flu and any other common cold,” she said.