Opinion

Kyle Troutman: The steps we don’t take

Saturday, September 19, 2020

As much as I try to avoid it, here I go again discussing the topic of the year — COVID-19.

Frankly, I’m tired of talking about it, hearing about it, thinking about it, writing about it and any other “-ing” about it that you can come up with. But, no matter how much I want to ignore it, COVID is a daily topic of conversation.

This past week was a significant one for schools, which after two full weeks of classes have seen some interesting trends.

In a story published Wednesday, I noted how five of eight schools (five of nine counting Shell Knob’s K-8 building) in our coverage area have not had a positive case of COVID to address. Pierce City, Verona, Purdy, Wheaton and Exeter have all been case-free, while Monett, Cassville, Southwest and Shell Knob have each had one case or more.

I saw this as an optimistic figure, however, a reader, Amanda Nunley, of Cassville, rightfully challenged me on one of our Facebook posts. Nunley contended that Cassville, Monett and Southwest account for 70 percent of the overall student body of the nine total schools.

“We haven’t avoided COVID at all, and to suggest so seems negligent,” she said.

It’s a fair point and a valuable perspective, one that I had not considered when I sat down to write the article. One of the benefits of social media is the ability for readers to provide input, and the ability for us at the paper to see it and adjust accordingly. I wouldn’t have classified my story as negligent, but I could also have provided greater context to the numbers.

But, we listen and we value opinions that make our reporting stronger and more accurate — and Nunley’s comment has.

Her perspective led me to crunch numbers on how many students are affected, broken down to school buildings.

So far, as of Thursday, positive cases have been identified at Monett Elementary, Monett Intermediate, Monett High School, Cassville Middle School and Shell Knob. Those buildings account for 2,230 students in the nine schools’ 7,650 total student population. That equates to 29 percent, or nearly one out of every three students in our nine-school coverage area, that has had a COVID positive in his or her school building. I did not count Southwest’s one case, as the person is a district employee who was not at school while contagious, nor does the person work in a building with children.

Some of those school buildings have had it worse than others, as we saw in Cassville this week, where the entire sixth-grade class was moved to virtual learning.

Over five days, two teachers tested positive and 200 students at Cassville Middle School were quarantined, including 100 of the 150-strong sixth-grade class. These were teachers that most students in that grade, plus some seventh- and eighth-graders, saw every day.

A lively discussion took place at the Cassville School Board meeting Thursday concerning the issue, centered around if the district should implement a more stringent policy for masking of students. Cassville remains the only district in the area that leaves masking decisions up to families, not requiring them during any part of the school day.

There are a couple big points to consider in this conversation. First, the Health Department’s contact tracing process does not take masks into account whatsoever. What the process relies on most heavily is social distancing. The main question asked is, “Who was within six feet of the positive case for more than 15 minutes throughout the day?”

Second, no amount of masking would have prevented the large number of quarantines. Masks are important and a great tool for limiting spread and keeping people healthy. The students at Cassville Middle School would have been at a much greater risk of catching COVID had the teachers not been masked, which the district does require.

In a classroom setting, distancing is understandably difficult to achieve at times. It’s a tough ask to limit middle school teachers to standing in the front of the room six feet away while delivering instruction. Some students require a little more hands-on learning.

Unfortunately, that is the situation we are in, and to keep from having mass quarantines, all districts should reevaluate their social distancing policies and do their best to keep from one or two teachers quarantining 67 percent of a class.

Neither school districts nor the Health Department wishes to quarantine so many students — they hate doing it — but the contact tracing guidelines must be followed to prevent the possibility of a larger spread.

Newton County issued a directive this week that would allow close contacts to remain in school, provided they mask whenever not socially distanced, including for sports or extracurriculars; monitor closely for symptoms; and quarantine when not at school.

Larry Bergner, administrator of the Newton County Health Department, said the goal behind the change was to give schools flexibility to keep students in school because they are at lower risk, and a small number of positives had turned into a massive number of quarantines.

I can sympathize with the goal, but it seems as though the change flies in the face of all CDC and DESE directives up to this point, and I would be shocked if the Barry or Lawrence County Health Department even considered such a change.

Unfortunately, COVID numbers locally will continue to climb. Barry County remains at more than 40 active cases, and Lawrence County on Wednesday announced its highest number of active cases at any one time, 63.

Many of these could be attributed to Labor Day weekend travel or get-togethers, but we also can’t overlook the number of community events recently.

On Sept. 11-12 alone, there was the Purdy Craft Show, the Freistatt Tractor Pull and the Cassville Rotary Demolition Derby, not to mention high school football and Saturday Mighty Mite games.

I attended the latter to take photos, immediately working through the crowd and up to the announcer’s stand. From there, using my longest lens, I zoomed in and scanned the crowd of probably 2,000-plus, and I could not find a single mask. Other than the people working the event, as far as I could tell, my fiancé and I were the only ones wearing masks as we walked through the tightly packed crowd.

Many more events are ahead this fall, and while most are taking precautions and encouraging distancing and masking, the threat remains.

To put it bluntly, COVID-19 will continue to be an issue locally until more people take it seriously. There is a profound disconnect between the effort schools are making to keep children healthy and the lack of safety measures taken by the community at large.

Roger Brock, Barry County Health Department administrator, said the county has had over 450 cases, 200 new cases in the past month, and 6 people have died.

“It is imperative that everyone continue to protect themselves and each other by maintaining physical distancing, wearing a face covering, washing hands often and staying home if you are sick,” he said.

On the Lawrence County Health Department’s Facebook post Wednesday, Tana Bradshaw, health educator for the Department, posted a personal anecdote to coincide with the announcement of 15 new cases.

“I was able to make a quick run to Walmart in Mt. Vernon today during the noon hour,” she said. “I was there around 15 minutes and counted 20 people not wearing masks. While I fully understand that some people are not able to wear a mask for various health reasons, I was very disappointed to see so many at one time not wearing a face covering. I talk to multiple people diagnosed with COVID-19 every day and during the course of investigations, [and] many times a person is not able to be linked to another person who is positive. That means that it was community acquired with no known link.

“Please, please wear a mask when shopping out in public. It may not seem like a big deal to you, but if it can cut down the risk of exposures to others, it is worth it. It is a big deal.”

Often on our social media, people lament how COVID is a hoax, how masks don’t work and how freedoms are being trampled. If that’s the case, why do our local health department employees urge residents so fervently to mask, distance and wash? Do you think these people, our neighbors, are part of a big conspiracy? Can we agree as a community that we should do as much as we can to put COVID in the rearview, preserve the health of our family and friends and keep students in school where they belong?

We can’t beat COVID immediately, but we can all take more steps as neighbors to slow the spread.

The more we work together, the better off all of us will be.

Kyle Troutman has served as the editor of the Cassville Democrat since 2014. In 2017, he was named William E. James/Missouri Outstanding Young Journalist for daily newspapers. He may be reached at 417-847-2610 or editor@cassville-democrat.com.