The Carthage Board of Education will hold an unusual special meeting at 6 p.m. on Tuesday with the Mercy Carthage Hospital Board of Directors to talk about local data regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the effects of this new Delta variant on the community.
The meeting will be held at the CIC Center.
Mercy Carthage Administrator Scott Watson said the hospital board wants to make sure the school board has the most up-to-date medical information on how the pandemic is impacting the community and the hospital, but it won’t ask the school board for anything.
“School protocol is the school’s business,” Watson said. “But it’s incumbent upon us to let the people know that the protocols, the procedures, the decisions that they make impact us. And when it impacts us, it impacts the people of the Carthage area.”
Carthage School Superintendent Mark Baker said the school board will listen and may have questions for the hospital board, but no decision will be made at this meeting.
“Our goal is to meet with them with the intent of just listening,” Baker said. “No decisions will be made that night, we’ll just be listening directly to them and maybe we have questions for them.”
Baker presented the district’s Tigers Together plan for operating under the cloud of the pandemic in the 2021-2022 school year at the school board’s regular July meeting.
“COVID is not over,” Baker said at the July meeting. “No matter what side of the street you’re on, COVID is still around. The variant is changing the way people are thinking, it appears that a different age group might be getting it now.”
Baker said the 2021-22 Tigers Together plan says masking and vaccines will be voluntary.
However, the only ways a student or employee can avoid quarantine if they come in contact with an infected individual is if they were wearing a mask properly or are vaccinated.
He said students in the district lost between 8,000 and 12,000 instructional days last year because of COVID quarantines, but it also became clear at the end of the year through contact tracing that the virus was not spreading in the schools.
Baker said 160 students tested positive for the virus and students were quarantined 1,559 times during the school year.
“Many kids were quarantined more than once,” Baker said. “I know someone very close to me who quarantined four times. Never tested positive but quarantined four times. And from our numbers, with the health department, very few quarantined students ever tested positive for an in-school contact case.”
Here are the big changes in the Tigers Together plan for the upcoming school year:
• Cleaning and disinfecting — This will still be encouraged but students and staff will no longer be required to wipe down their desks every time the move to or from them.
“We will provide the materials if they teacher still wants to do that,” Baker said. “I don’t know if you guys were aware, but every hour, the kids, every time they moved, they had to wipe down. We’re not going to require that this year.”
• Health screenings — Students and staff will be asked to complete their health screenings at home before school starts. Baker said the district will send home a list of symptoms and conditions to monitor. But the district will no longer take temperatures of everyone who enters a building before they enter.
“We sent home four individuals the entire school year last year who had a fever,” Baker said. “To me that takes up too much of our teachers times, our nurses times, our secretary’ times to do that for only four, so we will not start out the year taking temperatures.”
• Masks and face coverings — As of the start of the school year, these will be optional. Baker said this guidance could change based on spread of the disease and new instructions from the federal CDC, but the current plan is for mask wearing to be optional in the district.
• Quarantines — Baker said quarantines are not automatic for everyone who comes in contact with someone who has COVID, and there are two specific ways people can avoid quarantine — wear a mask correctly and consistently at all times or be vaccinated.
To see the entire 15-page Tigers Together plan, people can go to the district’s website https://www.carthagetigers.org and click on the link.
Baker said the school board will give the Tigers Together plan final approval in some form at its regular meeting on Monday, Aug. 16.
The Carthage Board of Education met in a special meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 4, specifically to discuss whether to meet with the Mercy Carthage Board of Directors.
After a short discussion, the vote was 6-1 to hold the meeting with Board Secretary Bill Lasley voting no.
In a post on his Facebook page, Lasley said he agrees with the plan to “abandon last year’s compulsory masking.”
He called the request from the Mercy Board, “very unusual and unprecedented.”
He said Baker opposed the idea of meeting with the Hospital Board, saying the Board of Education is an independent body and “that we are elected and he is hired to make such decisions; that he constantly monitors COVID data and the recommendations from our health departments, and consequently, he questioned what new, objective and unbiased information the Mercy Board would bring to the discussion.”
Hospital board concerns
Mercy Carthage Administrator Scott Watson said he recently shared the latest data on the COVID-19 pandemic with the hospital board, and its impact on Mercy Hospital Carthage, Mercy Hospital Joplin and the region.
The hospital board asked him if he had shared that information with the school district.
“I contacted Dr. Baker and Dr. Baker and I met wherein I delivered to him the data I had delivered to our board,” Watson said. “There was a communication between the two board presidents that indicated the two board presidents would still like to meet and that’s how Tuesday night originated.”
Watson said the pandemic impacts now are comparable to the impacts of the surge in the winter of 2020 and 2021, but they are also very different.
“Just to keep it simple, in 2020 and early 2021, it impacted us to some degree by the patients we were serving in the emergency department and in med surge, those patients were more ill than our prototypical patient,” Watson said. “ Now we are seeing 150 percent of our population in our ED (Emergency Department). It was rare that we ever had to hold a patient in the ED very long because we found a bed at another hospital that could provide the care they needed. When someone was very sick, we would transfer them to Mercy Joplin or to Freeman Health System or to Springfield.
“We transferred a patient last week to Festus, Missouri, a four-hour drive, and felt very, very fortunate to find a bed. There are a number of days when we are searching Oklahoma City, Wichita, Kansas City, Columbia, for beds. In 2018 or 2019, if you walked into Mercy Carthage’s emergency department, your average wait time was between 10 and 13 minutes. In 2021, that statistic is out the door and it’s out the door by a great margin. I’m not happy about this, our people are doing the best they can, but I know of one-hour, two-hour, three-hour, four-hour waits in our emergency department.”