Syringes and vaccine vials are set out ready to treat patients at West Liberty Middle School in West Liberty in 2015. (The Gazette)
CEDAR RAPIDS — Eastern Iowa school districts are no longer tracking the number of students and staff who test positive for COVID-19 as access to vaccines, improved treatment options and at-home testing has become available.
The recommendations implemented at the beginning of the pandemic — such as social distancing, masks and staying home if exposed to COVID-19 — were “never meant to be forever,” said Heather Meador, Linn County Public Health clinical branch supervisor, as school districts return to their regular illness policies predating the pandemic.
“This was a novel virus, we had not seen this before, our bodies had never been exposed to COVID-19, and we had no protection from it,” Meador said. “That’s why those measures were put in to place — for protection — until we could learn more about the virus and protect ourselves, each other and our health care infrastructure.”
“We are now almost three years out from COVID-19, and think of all the things we’ve learned. We now have vaccines to keep us protected from severe illness. When we are ill with COVID, we know what to do now. We’ve come a long way,” Meador said.
Sandra Byard, Cedar Rapids schools’ health services coordinator, agrees that the response to COVID-19 has changed — and should change — because of the availability of vaccines. “We’re in a totally different place,” she said.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District ended its mask requirement in January, a move made by many Iowa school districts around the same time.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District does continue to track the number of students and staff out sick every day and report it to Linn County Public Health, Byard said. If the illness rate reaches 10 percent in any school, they are required to report to the state, Byard said.
Absence rates have not exceeded 6 percent in any school so far this year, Byard said, and before the pandemic it was “unusual” to see rates above 10 percent.
One mitigation measure that has remained in Cedar Rapids schools since the pandemic are physical barriers in health offices to isolate students who are sick with any respiratory illness — including influenza — until they can be picked up from school.
Schools also have technology called needlepoint bi-polar ionization that was added to some buildings’ heating, ventilation and air cooling systems last year to help filter particles out of the air, including viruses like COVID-19, bacteria, mold, dust, dander and smoke.
“Keeping those measures in place, hopefully will keep our illness rates low even this winter,” Byard said. “We want people to stay home if they’re sick, and if they’re not sick to come to school and work.”
Byard said the district is recommending students, staff and families follow advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Linn County Public Health to get vaccinated and stay home for five days after testing positive for COVID-19.
Mary Beth Neal, supervisor of health services for the College Community School District, said COVID-19 is being treated similarly to influenza. As with influenza, which thousands of people die from every year, COVID-19 is not to be taken lightly, but health care officials are now better equipped to handle the virus.
“Some parents may have concerns with vaccinations,” Meador said. “That’s valid, but please talk to you health care provider — that person you go to when you’re ill. Talk to you pharmacist — someone who knows vaccinations and medications very well. Get information from them. Please don’t go on to social media. Don’t go ask your neighbor. Although people may have the best intentions, they may not have all the information.”
“I’ve had my flu shot and (COVID-19) booster dose,“ Meador said. ”I’m not asking anyone to do anything I’m not doing myself.“
Meador said public health is working with school districts in Linn County to monitor the rate of absences due to illness in schools. If there is an increase in absenteeism, that “tells us flu season’s hitting, and we need to start taking more mitigation measures,” Meador said. This includes washing hands more frequently, covering coughs and sneezes and staying home when sick, Meador said.
Meador’s advice for staying as healthy as possible includes getting a good night’s sleep, eating healthy, exercising and staying up to date on required and recommended immunizations.
The Iowa City Community School District also has worked closely with Johnson County Public Health since the beginning of the pandemic.
“We will continue to do so moving forward to ensure we are making decisions and developing protocols that align with their expert guidance, as we would do with any communicable disease,” district spokeswoman Kristin Pedersen said in an email.
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