The contentious Barton County Commission meeting Monday morning included finger pointing and the casting blame over the quarantining of the entire Great Bend High School volleyball team due to a positive COVID-19 exposure in a team member. But, by the end, all parties agreed to revisit the orders and make adjustments if needed.
“I think this open dialogue like we’ve had this morning is really positive,” Commissioner Jennifer Schartz said. “You know we’re all in this together. And so if we can just keep a team effort going, I think that it will be to the benefit of everyone.”
It didn’t start out that way. The issue arose when the team’s head coach Shelly Duvall asked to address commissioners, upset by what she saw as a mandate from the county.
However, Health Director Karen Winkelman said she advised USD 428 Superintendent Khris Thexton, and it was his call to make. Thexton, who was also present Monday, said he felt he had little choice but to adhere to Winkelman’s recommendations.
Points of contention
“I have come today to discuss a situation that occurred on Saturday, Sept. 19,” Duvall said. She said a junior varsity player tested positive for COVID-19 after having been quarantined on Thursday, Sept. 7, and as a result, the entire GBHS team, including those that did not have any contact with the JV team, was quarantined.
“This is by no means anything to attack anyone,” she said. But, she was concerned about “blanket quarantines” with students and the effect on them.
The school, she said, is one of the safest places for kids.
The students’ job is to go to school, she said. “That’s their only opportunity to be in an environment that I believe is safer than anywhere else in this town at this time.”
She also questioned how the quarantine investigations were handled and if it was really necessary to quarantine everyone. “As a parent, I now have a student who is in that situation,” she said.
“We all know that as much as we are wonderful teachers – and I am a teacher at the high school – I know that online schooling is not the same as being in person and learning from their teachers,” she said. At this point, they deserve to have as much education as possible.
Duvall said she was not contacted in advance about what happened Saturday night.
“Our teams were pulled from the court in front of several other teams and other people, which was absolutely devastating to their mental state.”
They had already been quarantined one time prior to school starting, and Duvall said they were given instructions on how to prevent it from happening again. “Those rules were followed by our kids.”
Duvall also wondered about what she sees as inconsistency in the orders and how students are quarantined.
“I don’t believe that blanket quarantines are in the best interest of our students. I believe the best interest for them is to be in school until symptoms are shown.”
Even so, “I can’t even imagine, Karen, what you guys are having to deal with,” she said to Winkelman. “I am just am asking for more communication and more direct contact with people involved.”
One point of contact
“We were made aware of the situation, and we had to act quickly,” Winkelman said. They did have guidance from the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Early on, during COVID, she had a meeting with superintendents, including Thexton, and they agreed there be one primary contact person at the schools.
“I asked for one person to talk to so that we didn’t have multiple, multiple explanations, and histories, and Khris Thexton volunteered to be that person.”
She said she visited with Thexton and provided him with her recommendations in this instance.
“Khris made the final decision,” Winkelman said.
Thexton said they have agreed he would be the contact and was notified of this positive case. But, “they have never at one point said that this recommendation was my choice.”
So, “when they say it was my final call, you can say that about anything in my role as superintendent,” he said. “When the Health Department says it’s their recommendation to order quarantines on this and I don’t follow that recommendation, what kind of a situation do I put myself in, our students or our district?”
He said that to work together to keep kids safe, “it’s not about assigning blame on who does what. It is my job to make that call, but I’m not making that call based on just a whim that I have; I’m relying on the Health Department and the medical community to follow those situations.”
“Karen hasn’t had a day off since March and she’s dealing with this all the time,” Schartz said. She and her staff don’t have time to make calls to multiple school contacts, and that is why it is important to have one contact “to make more time for them to do their job.”
Still, Duvall didn’t see the need to quarantine the entire team, but not the trainers and coaches who were also present. “So it just doesn’t make sense to me.”
“It’s a moving target and we’re just doing the best we can,” Schartz said. “We’re just trying to keep as many people safe as possible and I would personally rather err on the side of caution than to expose somebody to an illness.”
A valued relationship
“We treasure that working relationship because we’re all in this together and everybody can agree it’s a bad situation,” Schartz said.
Winkelman doesn’t make recommendations lightly and considers the impact, Schartz said. “So I agree with you, there’s really no blame to be had. We’re just trying to keep people as safe as we can. And that’s just the bottom line.”
“We have excellent nurses,” Thexton said. “I think our nurses can handle that contact tracing and I think they can take care of it.”
He feels the line of communication between district nurses and Health Department nurses should be clarified. He is also wanting more clarification on recommended versus ordered quarantines.
“We want to keep our kids in school. We also need to keep the greater population healthy as well,” he said. “If you walk down the halls of our schools right now, you see our staff, our students, our classified staff and certified staff all wearing masks. They’re doing everything they can to keep our school in session because that is important to our families. That’s important to our students and important to our staff, because that’s our job, to take care of kids.”
He said he feels the school district has gone above and beyond to help kids and community safe.
Why the wide net?
County Administrator Phil Hathcock said they set up a system with one point of contact because they were getting overwhelmed with calls and questions, and also they were getting multiple stories. “However, it is the responsibility of that contact, in this case Khris, to determine what needs to be done.”
A list of close contacts was submitted to the Health Department by the school district, Duvall said. However, there may have been some confusion and misunderstanding when the entire team received orders, not just those listed.
Duvall and Assistant Superintendent John Popp asked if the district and Winkelman could sit down and review the list.
“Absolutely; I think that’s a very reasonable request,” Hathcock said.