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On August 10 the Salida School Board met for their regular meeting where they discussed the upcoming school year and the Delta Variant of COVID-19. Chaffee County Public Health (CCPH) Director Andrea Carlstrom and County Commissioner Greg Felt both attended the meeting. The school board ultimately voted to approve Superintendent Blackburn’s recommendation of how to proceed with the school year after a lengthy and thorough discussion.

In a letter to parents, Blackburn explained “Last year we successfully stayed in person by pursuing a flexible response to COVID.  As conditions changed, we added and subtracted layers of protection.  This year, we are going to use the same flexible approach.  Expect change.”

He continued, “The best layer of protection is a vaccine. Students age 12 and up should get vaccinated. We will also continue with mask-wearing, distancing, ventilation, air filtration, disinfecting, and frequent testing.  The more individuals take responsibility for their world, and the more local data we have, the more we can use a targeted approach in our responses.  The less individuals take responsibility for their world, and the less local data we have, the more we will use generalized responses.  We want to avoid quarantines, which can be done by getting vaccinated or wearing a mask.”

Image courtesy of the Salida School District.

“I can’t imagine a better county to be doing this in than Chaffee County. Thank you for your continued support, insights, and constant feedback for the last year and a half regarding this complex situation we’re in,” said Carlstrom. “I look at it this way, that a global pandemic is a crisis. We recognize that however at this moment in time we are not in crisis mode here in this county. I think we really have to take a look at taking a practical and reasonable approach and preparing for a potential crisis but most likely preventing a local crisis.”

She continued “I’m not hearing of any county like ours in which local public health agencies are issuing mask mandates, either counties or for the school environment. I do think where we have the greatest impact is in fostering this culture of mask-wearing, testing, and staying at home when you feel sick and supporting each other,” she added.

Regarding vaccinations, Carlstrom explained “There is a lot of pressure to look at the dosages for younger people and to try to create a vaccine that is going to be as safe for those younger people. We’ve been reviewing the school plan and I think we all agree that we have to be flexible and nimble throughout this whole journey. I am comfortable with the current plan. I think we have a lot of safeguards in place so that we’re constantly assessing our measures.”

CCPH is currently collecting data on the percentages of vaccinated people within the county. “Before we push out anything we really want to be as careful as possible, but we did run a countywide 12 to 17 vaccination rate just this morning,” said Carlstrom. “I think it’s something to consider as we not only look at masking as one tool in our extensive toolkit, but we have a lot of strategies that we can implement beyond that. Taking this layered approach, I think is what’s really going to allow us to have an accessible in-person school year.”

“One dose is 31.4 percent[effective]. Of 12- to 17-year-olds, 25.6 percent are fully vaccinated,” she added. “I don’t know whether I was surprised or not surprised by this statistic. Countywide I want to provide some good news. We are at 69.8 percent  [of eligible people] who have received one dose and 64.8 are fully vaccinated. We have an opportunity here to get to that 70 percent total.”

As Carlstrom has often said before “The vaccine is the ticket out of the pandemic. There’s a lot of reasons why people are not getting vaccinated right now and I really want to respect that and balance our decision making.”

CCPH will be pushing back with local data to make sure that a mask mandate has favorable outcomes in comparison to the other competing priorities of the school environment. CCPH has also hired a clinical school coordinator for both ends of the county, who will work as a liaison. “We really want to elevate the burden on the school nurses as well as just in general,” said Carlstrom.

Board members asked questions; one regarding the county’s goal to reach 70 percent vaccination rates. Carlstrom explained that if this goal is reached, she would feel even more comfortable with in-person instruction.

“We have ample vaccine supplies. It’s unreal that some countries don’t even have the vaccine rolled out yet. We’re sitting on so much vaccine it’s expiring and going to waste. So how do we change this narrative? How do we normalize this vaccine in comparison to other vaccines? It may be that waiving the emergency use authorization for it to become more mainstream. It may be when more data becomes available.”

One possible “tool” Carlstrom discussed is the use of testing for monitoring data as well as testing for positive cases. This testing is known as serial testing which could be started at any point for vaccinated and unvaccinated kids. Both Carlstrom and the board spoke to this as part of a layered approach to help keep the schools open.

Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt shared his feelings regarding the school testing process. “We will support you however we can and in whatever way you ask. But I would encourage you, even though it will impact your day, to enroll in this testing program … You can’t really do this without it.” We are really with you and so proud of you, truly and we will be there for the year ahead in all the ups and downs and challenges. Let’s not pretend we know what’s going to happen, but we know where we are now and we want to continue to know where we are.”

Salida School Board Member Jodi Breckenridge Petit commented, “we have amazing interagency collaboration, I don’t think another county in this state has. But we have some realities that we haven’t talked about yet. We have an exponential [COVID] positivity growth that is happening. Exponents don’t work well with us right now. I think we as a board are being naïve if we don’t talk about other school districts in the county. BV is approaching this differently with their declaration, and the culture of masking isn’t going to happen in that district. We have to look at ourselves as an entire county.

She continued “I know we can adapt; we can change, and we can change on a dime, but we have this COVID that is changing on a dime too. I was enthused by Greg when he said let’s think about the teachers who have to deal with the masks. It’s nothing I want to do but if we talk about prevention  — that’s what Andrea talked about.”

“I don’t want to wear a mask but if it’s what we have to do — it’s a mask. I recognize it’s a political issue now but if our goal is calmness, predictability, and in-person education this is probably the answer the mitigates all these other changes,” said Petit.

Blackburn and the Salida School Board established these parameters for the school year:

  • Get vaccinated if eligible and able.
  • If you are sick, stay home.
  • Masks are expected in school. If a child does not wear a mask your family risks quarantines. Masks are required for adult guests to our buildings, and on all of our buses for students and staff.
  • Staff will be challenging all students to wear a mask, regardless of vaccination status in order to protect our community, keep our kids in school and businesses open.
  • Students will be tested unless you let us know differently.
  • Participation in activities will require testing.

“Lastly,” wrote Blackburn, “I want to say thank you to our School Board. Tuesday night they discussed our layers of protection late into the night. Every variety of perspectives in our community was represented and discussed.  They disagreed with one another and listened to one another.  In the end, they found consensus without anger or blame.  Civil discourse is possible.  This is how we did it last year–together.  This is how we will keep in-person instruction a reality this year–together.  Thank you for your support, even when your perspective is not dominant. Ease your anxieties by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask.”

The Salida School District returns to in-person learning on August 16. School faculty and staff will continue to work with Public Health to monitor the current COVID-19 situation.