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Solon is a small city divided over COVID-19 protocols this school year.
Residents are contending with an outbreak of the virus that set a record for weekly cases among students since the beginning of the pandemic, but sharply divided over whether requiring masks or tightening quarantine policies will help.
The Solon Community School District recorded 115 positive cases among students in the first six weeks of school — meaning about 7.5% of students in the district have caught the virus. The neighboring district of Iowa City, nearly 10 times larger in enrollment, has recorded 273 cases since beginning of the year, or 1.8% of students.
The peak in cases in Solon schools last year took place in November, with a weekly high of 27. This year, weekly caseloads rose from the single digits to 67 and 29, respectively, in the last two weeks of September.
Solon district leadership changed some health and safety protocols in response. To begin the school year, students had been allowed to come to school if someone in their household was positive for COVID-19. Now, students must quarantine if someone at home tests positive, even if they are symptom-free.
Superintendent Davis Eidahl said reinstating a mask mandate that was in place last school year is not the answer this fall.
“It’s a good reminder that we don’t want to send children to school with any illnesses or any symptoms of illnesses. The thing about COVID is, you look across the symptoms … they’re also related to several other childhood illnesses,” Eidahl said in an interview. “This is kind of a wakeup call, and our parents are doing a great job monitoring (symptoms). We’re going to need their partnership through this.”
Solon starts with policy that follows state guidelines, then alters it
Solon’s initial policy fell in line with guidance issued by the Iowa Department of Public Health in May, which has since been adopted by most districts across the state. It says close contacts should not be required to quarantine unless they show symptoms.
But that contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which says unvaccinated people, like young kids, should quarantine after close-contact exposure.
IDPH guidance also changed the ways county health departments and schools contact trace. Solon, like many districts, does not provide lists of close contacts at school to the county’s health department.
“Investigation and contact tracing is still occurring for individuals who test positive and are Johnson County residents,” said Sam Jarvis, Community Health Division Manager with Johnson County Public Health.
Without more specific information, it’s nearly impossible to do appropriate contact tracing, he said.
The CDC still recommends masking in school settings regardless of vaccination status.
Last year, Solon schools did have a mask requirement, but this year the district has not taken action on one. It has had the ability to so since mid-September, when a federal judge temporarily blocked the state’s ban on in-school mask requirements.
Eidahl said masking isn’t necessary at this time.
“We’re always going to have cases,” Eidahl said. “(A mask requirement is) a pretty extreme measure with all other strategies we feel we have in our toolbox — the quarantining, the groupings of students, the changes in routines, the classroom practices. … There’s just little things that we can do that all add up to big things.”
There are many reasons to wear masks, Eidahl said. But he said a mask requirement could create a false sense of security, because in order to be effective, masks have to be worn properly.
Ahead of pivotal school board election, Solon parents are divided
Solon community members agree that quarantines are burdensome on families, often requiring them to find childcare or miss work when children can’t attend school in-person. But questions about how to handle the day-to-day mitigation inside schools are causing division.
Parent Jason Burns said, even in the best-case scenario, cases spreading at school — aided by the lack of a mask requirement — mean kids will continue having to quarantine.
CDC guidance for K-12 schools says quarantine can be avoided for unvaccinated people if both parties consistently and correctly wore masks during a close-contact exposure.
Burns’ fourth-grade daughter is one of the only students in her class who wears a mask, he said. The family still uses at-home tests out of caution and found that she had an asymptomatic case.
“These effects can kind of ripple throughout the community, so even the kids that are asymptomatic, they can be carrying it or potentially infecting other people in the community or their classes,” Burns said.
His daughter is too young to be vaccinated.
Dannisha Phillips Pugh, who has a son in high school, argues that most Solon parents don’t want a mask requirement. A health care industry employee, she said quarantines can unnecessarily keep parents — who in Solon often commute to work at the University or Iowa or hospitals nearby — from their jobs in healthcare.
“What I saw last year, specifically, were my nurse managers saying, ‘Oh my God please, keep your kids in school, we cannot have any more staff members out or we’re not going to have anyone to take care of the sick people,'” she said.
Some of the students being required to quarantine could have already gotten the virus and recovered, Pugh said. She said families with teenagers might neglect to get tested to avoid missing out on athletics or other extracurricular activities.
District and school board leadership are often the sounding board for parents’ concerns, no matter which side of the debate they land on. On Nov. 2, the community will be asked to select three members of the school board, a new majority, out of seven candidates.
‘Those facts were very clear’: Some parents frustrated by status quo
Tim Brown and Dan Coons are current members of the board, which has not taken action on masks. Neither the two incumbents nor candidate Cassie Rochholz answered a questionnaire from the Press-Citizen about their campaign positions, which included a question about mask requirements.
The four candidates who answered all said they would support a mask requirement of some form.
“The school and the school board do not seem to be responsive; the changes they’ve made do not seem to be doing much,” said parent Michael Neuerburg, who supports a mandate and is running for school board. “They’re not doing the things that the public health authorities and organization and everyone recommends.”
Neuerburg’s elementary-age daughter caught the coronavirus and missed two weeks of school, he said.
“We should be smart enough not to have to make our own mistakes. We can look around at what’s happening around the country, around the world, at the research that everyone’s doing. And all of those facts were very clear well before Solon had its outbreak,” he said.
Burns, who has tried contacting the school board about his concerns, said he’s not expecting the district to take action on a mask requirement. But he’s frustrated by a lack of masking among district staff, which he thinks would model good behavior for children.
“It just seems that we had a good recipe last year of what was working, and this year with a more transmissible variant going around, we kind of let our foot off the gas there. It just doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Burns said.
Placing blame on administrators for not enacting a mask requirement further causes division, Pugh said. She points out that many district employees have kids in Solon schools. That means they are making decisions that impact their own children, too.
“When you put so much judgement on someone else for their decisions, forcing them to do things, you’re causing a whole other issue that you’re not even aware of,” she said.
Her concerns about masks also lie with her fear of what children will miss out on if they’re required to wear them.
“What else are you masking besides my face? My freedom, my emotions, my interactions, my body language. I mean — that’s a lot,” she said.