Responding to concerns expressed by parents and school employees over handling of the coronavirus, Amite County School District Superintendent Don Cuevas said he wants the public and the district staff to know that the schools are following state guidelines to keep the district as safe from COVID-19 as possible.
The district put the entire seventh and eighth grades on a two-week quarantine last week after three teachers caught the virus. Since those grades share several rooms and areas of campus, Cuevas thought it safest to send all the students home.
Parents and district employees have contacted the Enterprise-Journal in recent weeks listing a number of concerns, incuding a teacher who tested positive with COVID-19 being told to return to work after just 10 days of quarantine.
Cuevas said no school virus reports from his district to the Mississippi State Department of Health are being altered or edited by administrators to make the schools look safer than they are.
“No nurse would lose their job over that. No principal would lose their job over that,” he said. “It doesn’t benefit us to lie about anything. I’ve made it clear to everybody we’re not going to lie to a soul.”
Amite County High School Principal Neal Smith has the school nurse submit the high school’s numbers, and the elementary nurse submits numbers for that that school.
“I’ve said from Day 1 we’re going to be upfront. There is no room for a lie anywhere,” Cuevas said.
According to the most recent MSDH school reports, from Oct. 12-16, Amite County Elementary reported one to five new COVID-19 cases among teachers, one to five new cases among students and 24 students quarantined. Amite County High reported one to five new teacher COVID-19 cases, one to five new student cases, one teacher quarantined and 134 students quarantined.
One to five teachers have been confirmed to have the virus at both schools this year, while one to five students at the elementary and seven at the high school have had it, according to the health department, which doesn’t give specific number for cases fewer than five out of privacy concerns.
He said Wednesday that no new teachers or students from that group had tested positive for COVID-19 since that quarantine began.
One teacher who caught COVID-19 recently returned to work at an Amite school while still testing positive, but Cuevas said she is no longer contagious.
Cuevas said the teacher had been quarantined for the state-mandated 10 to 14 days, although school employees and parents who contacted the Enterprise-Journal in recent days said the teacher was only quarantined for 10 days and they worried she could still be contagious.
Cuevas cited instructions from the state department of health that tell administrators not to ask employees to get tested before they return, since a test will still show the person has COVID-19 up to 90 days after catching it.
A cafeteria worker in the district caught the virus around two weeks ago, but she worked in the back of the kitchen and didn’t directly expose any students, Cuevas said. She had not returned to work as of Wednesday.
Ten days of quarantine is the new minimum for those exposed to or having caught the virus, but if symptoms persist, 14 days off are still allowed. Those days are not subtracted from the 10 personal and sick days that district employees are allowed every year, Cuevas said. That policy does not apply to someone hospitalized with a severe case who would be out for longer.
Students are playing a part in their own safety, Cuevas said.
While some residents have worried that teachers don’t have enough time between classes to properly sanitize their rooms and desks, Cuevas assured that it is getting done.
“Most of them are having the kids do it,” he said. “Teachers spray (the desks), and the kids wipe them, and they do clean them on the off period. There’s nobody being told they can’t do that.”
Teachers in high school and elementary have the choice to open their windows to better vent their rooms. Cuevas noticed some of the elementary teachers doing so.
Cuevas said he has personally checked to make sure classes aren’t overcrowded. He was mostly worried about that at the middle school, so two weeks ago, he went to every classroom there with the principal and the curriculum director to count students.
The most scheduled for any class was 18. Cuevas said some rosters may show more than that because they include virtual students who don’t come to campus.
“It was when we first had the first case of a teacher in eighth grade,” Cuevas said. “We actually went over there and counted because we wanted to make sure they weren’t overcrowded.”
Teachers are required to use seating charts that keep students in the same seats and keep them six feet apart, and they try to keep students moving along opposite sides of the hallway to avoid contact with each other.
At the elementary school, kindergarten through second grade only have one teacher for the whole day. Third through sixth grade have a team of teachers who change rooms through the day.
“You can’t do it in high school or in seventh and eighth grade. There’s just no way around it,” Cuevas said.
The main obstacle is having to schedule students with the teachers who can best help them with their academic needs. Students going to different classes from each other at different times of day is also an issue.
Cuevas said more lunch times were added to reduce the number of students in the cafeteria at one time. He has personally seen staff enforce social distancing when he eats lunch at the high school and elementary every day. Social distancing is an important factor in changing rooms and eating lunch in the cafeteria.
“If a teacher comes down with it, it doesn’t necessarily mean everybody in that class has it,” Cuevas said.
That also informs the district’s quarantine policies for students and teachers, the latter of whom are expected to continue working on campus if they don’t meet exposure criteria. Besides the ones who recently caught the virus, seventh- and eighth-grade teachers are still working on campus.
“They’re essential personnel, so we can have the teachers come in. They have to be screened daily,” Cuevas said.
High school administrators have confirmed with him that when teachers come to them reporting symptoms, they send them to get checked. Their classes are easy to cover thanks to rapid tests.
In his daily visits to campus, Cuevas said he doesn’t believe that teachers are nervous or that they feel pressured into doing their jobs in unsafe conditions.
“Of course we don’t want any of our teachers to just take a holiday. To me, as a superintendent, we want our teachers to be here to teach kids,” he said. “I know they have a tough job. Each individual has to decide if they want to do their job. They didn’t tell us to have school if we want to; they said you have to have school. Each individual teacher had to decide.”
He noted that some teachers resigned or retired before the semester started because that was their choice concerning the pandemic. He praised the work he’s seen from his teachers and administrators, most of whom he said are supportive of the district’s safety efforts.
“They’re doing the best they can every day,” he said. “As far as a district, I say we’re second to none.”