A high vaccination rate among staff and taking care to keep classrooms and common areas sanitized are just two ways that Limestone County Schools officials say have helped them avoid major outbreaks and the need for a mask mandate, even as Alabama as a whole remains at high risk for community spread of COVID-19.
LCS Superintendent Randy Shearouse said the district continues to strongly recommend masks and monitor reports of positive tests among students and staff, but as of Friday, they have yet to see a need to mandate masks or announce school shutdowns. Last year, surges in positive test reports led to mass quarantines and two schools shutting down for at least a week.
As of this week, less than 15 employees had been sent home to quarantine, which Shearouse said is due largely in part to how many have gotten vaccinated against the disease.
"We knew we had about 70% vaccinated last year, and I would think a lot more have been vaccinated since then," he said. "It looks like the higher vaccination rate has certainly helped us with our staffing."
The district has also been able to bring back a lot of the key school experiences that were prevented last year by the pandemic — though not without its changes. For example, high school football pep rallies have returned, though Shearouse said some schools have opted to host pep rallies outside, thus allowing for better social distancing.
"Students wanted things to go back to normal," he said. "I didn't really realize they had missed as much as they had, and they wanted things back."
He said it's important to try to give children "as normal an experience as possible" despite the pandemic, so even if it has its changes, "at least we're having a pep rally."
While masks are optional in class, students are still required to wear them when riding on the bus. The district has also kept the increased sanitization process, Shearouse said, making sure to regularly spray and clean buses, classrooms and common areas at schools. Masks are also available if a child wants to wear one or has lost theirs.
He said he hears pretty regularly from parents on both sides of the mask issue, but for now, the plan is to continue monitoring and take it day by day. Positive test reports are scattered throughout the district, but LCS officials have noticed a slight increase since the school year began.
"We all are (concerned)," he said. "... We hoped we didn't have to deal with (COVID-19) this year, but we are."
When a student does test positive, the current policy is to send a letter home with their classmates, informing parents that their child has possibly been exposed. Students who develop symptoms must stay home and quarantine, but contact tracing and quarantining based on possible exposure alone are not required, Shearouse said.
He said that if a hot spot arises in the district, it's possible the school or schools in that hot spot to be placed under a mask mandate without the entire district being under one, similar to one school being shut down due to an outbreak at that school.
Fortunately, Shearouse said, no such hot spots exist in the district right now. They're hoping it stays that way.