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Waco-area schools see fewer new COVID-19 cases with masking, testing; Relief not seen countywide

Waco-area schools see fewer new COVID-19 cases with masking, testing; Relief not seen countywide

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Roughly a month after the start of school, some McLennan County school districts are starting to see marked declines in active COVID-19 cases, some dropping to less than half the cases seen only three weeks ago.

In Waco Independent School District, 67 new cases were reported this week by Thursday, the third week of an indoor masking requirement and a sharp contrast to the second week of classes when 270 new cases were reported. McGregor ISD’s four campuses had six new cases, a fraction of the 65 new cases experienced the week of Aug. 30.

“We are trending down … breathing a little easier,” McGregor Superintendent James Lenamon said.

Numbers were also down this week at Midway, La Vega and Lorena ISDs, where positivity rates at some campuses earlier this month had administrators worried about what would come next.

School officials said mask use, robust testing programs, stronger quarantine measures and other in-school protocols are helping, but they know the situation could easily turn back around.

The decline in cases in local schools in the past few weeks contrasts with McLennan County as a whole, which has continued to see persistently high new case counts. The county started the month with 2,054 active cases and a one-day record of 501 new cases. On Friday, the county had 1,797 active cases and 141 new cases, though it saw 448 new cases Thursday.

September also is on track to become one of COVID-19’s deadliest months, with 61 deaths by Friday, compared to 86 deaths in December and 76 in January.

Some area school districts saw more COVID-19 cases in just a few weeks than the entire previous school year. Classes started Aug. 18 in McGregor, and within four weeks the district had recorded 169 active cases, more than the 158 cases tallied last year. Two weeks ago, Lorena had 51 active cases, more than any one week last year.

School officials attributed the recent dip in new cases not to a single strategy, but the cumulative impact of multiple measures, including student and teacher masking for some, quick and available testing, quarantines for siblings of infected students, social distancing, school sanitation and repeated messaging to families.

“It’s all those factors,” Lorena ISD Superintendent Joe Kucera said.

Lorena has “strongly encouraged” mask use but not required it, in part because of Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates by schools and other state entities. But 51 new cases in the district two weeks ago made officials double down on alternatives.

Families with a child who had COVID-19 were asked to keep siblings home in quarantine. Principals looked at ways to prevent student gatherings, whether in formal activities or hallway traffic. School officials also continued to press COVID-19 awareness among parents and students.

Lorena saw 32 new cases of COVID-19 last week, and 21 this week. Kucera, however, said the improving numbers do not mean districts have COVID-19 corralled.

“The reality is it can change on a dime,” he said.

Waco ISD Director of Health Services Rhiannon Settles said the district’s weekly case numbers have dropped each week since Superintendent Susan Kincannon required masks be worn in all district buildings.

“It’s pretty exciting. Masks work,” Settles said.

So does frequent COVID-19 testing done with parental permission. She said the district’s school nurses have worked hard to identify sick students and get them home quickly. With a parent’s OK, nurses can give a rapid COVID-19 to a student showing symptoms at school. Parents or guardians are asked to pick up children who test positive while nurses and district staffers work on notifying others who may have come in close contact with that student.

“Masking and frequent testing are going to be our key,” Settles said.

In addition to school sanitation protocols carried over from last year, Waco ISD also has held periodic vaccination clinics on school campuses or at school events.

Frequent testing and quarantining sick students is a major part of Midway ISD’s COVID-19 containment strategy, which reported 117 active student cases this week after a high of 275 active cases on Sept. 2 and 178 on Sept. 10.

“We are doing much better this week with half the number of earlier weeks,” district spokesperson Traci Marlin said. “We still really have a plea out to parents to keep kids home or test them if the are symptomatic.”

Parents have sent some sniffling and coughing children on to school, thinking they were suffering from allergies, only to have those children test positive for COVID-19, Marlin said.

While Midway has not required masking, it is pursuing a range of measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 among students, teachers and staff, most carried over from last year’s extensive protocols on spacing, sanitation, building ventilation and more.

“We never had masks the only thing in place,” Marlin said.

The district also offers an online “virtual school” for medically fragile students, while designated facilitators and remote conferencing work to keep students at home in isolation or quarantine abreast of their classroom assignments. Parents with kids who may or may not be sick are encouraged to take advantage of drive-thru rapid COVID-19 testing from 6:45 to 8:45 weekday mornings at Midway Stadium.

“The more targeted our approach is, the more effective is it,” Marlin said.

She said three elementary schools had different experiences with COVID-19 cases, requiring tailored responses. At Spring Valley Elementary, several staff members had COVID-19 before students started fall classes. A week later, Woodgate Elementary had several student cases in scattered classes while Woodway Elementary had multiple cases in one class.

“All three of these cases were approached differently,” she said.

Marlin said some parents who had not paid much attention to districtwide communications encouraging masking and other COVID-19 precautions did so when the message came from their child’s principal or classroom teacher. Over time, there is a cumulative effect.

“When we have a concentrated effort, it’s been very effective in getting the numbers down,” she said.

Both La Vega and McGregor ISDs have seen case counts drop in the weeks after campus positivity rates had triggered mask mandates or directives. La Vega saw weekly active cases drop from 54 on Sept. 9 to 11 cases this week. At the smaller McGregor ISD, new cases went from an alarming 65 the week of Aug. 30 to 16 cases by Sept. 6 and six new cases this week.

Lenamon, the McGregor superintendent, said a request for parents to quarantine siblings of students with COVID-19 played a significant role in slowing new cases. So did widespread compliance with a district request that students voluntarily start wearing masks to schools. As a result, the district has returned to Stage 1 of its district COVID-19 protocols, where masking is encouraged but not required.

Kincannon, the Waco ISD superintendent, initially resisted implementing a mask mandate at the start of the school year, but cases in the first week of classes led her to reverse her position, requiring masks be worn in district buildings beginning Aug. 30. Waco ISD trustees later backed her decision with a resolution at their Sept. 9 meeting.

On Sept. 10, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent letters to the Waco, Midway, McGregor and La Vega districts warning them to stop mask mandates to comply with Abbott’s directive.

Three days later, Paxton filed a lawsuit and is seeking a temporary restraining order and permanent injunction against those districts.

Judge Vicki Menard of Waco’s 414th State District Court has set a hearing for Sept. 27 on the attorney general’s request.

Paxton’s office requested that Menard set and expedited hearing on its request, and attorneys for the Waco school district were concerned the attorney general was seeking the temporary order without a hearing on the basic merits of the case.

Menard, the county’s administrative judge who has established a strict mask policy for her courtroom and the courthouse common areas, will conduct the hearing via teleconference.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the school districts are deliberately defying Abbott’s emergency orders and that the state will be “irreparably harmed” if the districts are not blocked from doing so by the temporary restraining order and injunction.

Tribune-Herald staff writer Tommy Witherspoon contributed to this report.

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