Dear BPS Families,
We’re all familiar with that part of a horror movie where, after wreaking havoc on a family or neighborhood, the bad guy/monster “appears” to meet his demise at the hands of one of the protagonists. The background music turns quiet and the people in the movie begin to relax and hug each other, falsely believing their ordeal is over. However, the audience knows there are still 20 minutes left in the movie so we begin yelling at the screen, “Watch out! He’s not dead. GET OUT of there!” Yet, the people in the movie can’t hear us and more bad things happen.
COVID-19 has become our shared monster and it is not dead. Despite a brief, pleasant break last spring and into the summer - fueled largely by an early push for vaccinations - this villain has reemerged, more contagious and vexing than ever. Our long ordeal is not over. And this has left many of us frustrated, anxious, and unsettled.
According to the CDC, the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has mutated several times since the start of the pandemic, resulting in different variants of the virus. The most recent Delta variant is listed as a “variant of concern” due to its high rate of transmissibility. We are certainly seeing that manifested in our schools and across our nation. And, as long as vaccination rates remain low around the globe, more variants will emerge, like the expanding Lambda and Mu (B.1.162) variants which may compete with the Delta version for supremacy over the next few months. To continue with the monster analogy, COVID is not going away. It is simply changing form and will continue to evolve and reemerge to cause suffering on the human race, likely for years to come.
The impact of the Delta variant on our schools has been significant. Positive student cases in BPS (133) for the final 17 days of August exceeded the high number the district experienced in January 2021, at the height of last year’s spread. On the positive side, the majority of these student cases are still reporting as asymptomatic or experiencing minor symptoms. And, while a large number by itself, 133 cases still represents less than 2% of our students, meaning that 98% of our students are generally healthy and unaffected. My intent is not to minimize these numbers, but to provide context, as I am keenly aware that each one of those 133 cases represents a child. One of your children.
So, recognizing that this pandemic is not over, what is our best course moving forward? How do we keep our students and staff safe, minimize the spread of COVID in our schools, and maintain in-person instruction?
Regrettably, there are no clear, easy answers for these questions. In some ways, the goals are in opposition to each other as keeping students in school obviously increases their chances of being exposed, getting infected, and spreading it to others. That’s why to some in our community it may seem like we’re doing too much, and to others that we’re not doing enough.
Mask wearing is clearly not a popular option for most families and children in Bixby. Our estimates from observing classrooms this week is that less than 20% of students are wearing masks. Even if our Board of Education were to approve a universal mask mandate, it is likely that many families would opt out of the requirement in accordance with SB658. That said, masking requirements may remain a temporary option to address isolated outbreaks at specific schools, grade levels, or classrooms in the future. The district will continue to follow the progress of the ongoing legal cases and make decisions accordingly.
Quarantines are also problematic. We are all hesitant to return to mass quarantines of students, knowing that this will likely lead to a return to distance learning at many sites due to so many students being at home. To date, we have identified over 1,600 student exposures in 15 days. If those students had been sent home on quarantines, several sites and/or grade levels in Bixby would have already pivoted to distance learning.
This is an example of using lessons learned from last year to guide our decisions this year. As I have shared previously, our data from last year revealed that less than one percent of the over 4,400 student quarantines we issued ever reported that they experienced COVID symptoms or received a positive test. Granted, this data may be incomplete, yet it is clear that the overwhelming majority of students sent home on quarantines last year never got sick. However, many of these students struggled with inconsistent instruction, loss of social contacts, the inability to participate in athletics and extracurricular activities, and long, often repeated periods of isolation. Parent schedules were also seriously disrupted and many families experienced financial hardships as a result of missing work.
While not issuing quarantines this year, the district has still been conducting contact tracing and notifying families of potential exposures. Yet, this practice is extremely time-consuming for our already overstretched site nurses and administrators and may not be very useful for parents receiving these notices, especially if multiple notifications are made in a short period of time.
As a result, beginning Tuesday, we will be suspending our contact tracing protocols and, instead, provide daily updates of positive cases by site and grade level via our COVID Data Dashboard. At our PK-3 sites, we will continue to provide exposure alerts for students who spend the majority of their day together in the same classroom.
To some, this may appear as if we are capitulating to this virus. We are not. We are simply focusing on the efforts we believe will help keep most students learning in-person, while recognizing there will be inherent risks of attending school during a worldwide pandemic.
The key to our district being able to remain with in-person learning is continued vigilance in identifying and isolating positive individuals. Please continue to monitor your child’s health status each day. Consult with your pediatrician to stay aware of potential symptoms and personal mitigation practices. Do not send your child to school if they are exhibiting COVID-like symptoms. Strongly encourage your child(ren) to wear a mask and get your child vaccinated if they are eligible. Remind your children to wash their hands frequently and avoid touching their faces. Finally, continue to exercise good judgment in the community by following protocols related to distancing and masking when in large groups, especially indoors.
We all look forward to the day when this terrible "COVID-monster" is eventually subdued. Until that time, we value your support and cooperation in helping us keep our schools safe and operating as normally as possible.