Pelham Board of Education discusses COVID-19 regulations at board meeting

PELHAM – On Aug. 30, the Pelham City School System Board of Education held a special board meeting to discuss new COVID-19 regulations.

“COVID is not going away,” said board member Angie Hester. “It’s much worse this year.”

Specific school case counts are not publicly available in Shelby County or statewide, but the number of cases involving children has risen considerably in the past few weeks. According to the Alabama Department of Public Health, Alabama school districts reported 4,337 cases this past week, with 252 total cases from Shelby County. The department also reported 52 out of 143 school districts were actively reporting case numbers.

PCS Lead Nurse Julie Stevenson shared some of the symptoms that nurses have reported seeing in students, saying it is more difficult this year to pinpoint cases as they rise than it was last year.

“It’s really the gambit of symptoms,” Stevenson said, “but the main ones are headache, half have a fever, cough, congestion and stomach issues.”

Stevenson added compared to last year, this year has seen an increase in sick students coming to the nurse’s office. “Last year parents really did a great job of keeping their kids at home,” she said. “This year, the symptoms can be so mild that some parents may chalk it up to the kids back at school, or it’s their allergies bothering them. Then we send them home with a runny nose and the next day it’s COVID.”

Stevenson said the unpredictability of the virus is cause for more concern, especially considering its high contagion rate. “This year what I’ve seen is when I call about a child being positive, one day it’s the one child and then a couple days later the parents may call me back and tell me the rest of their children have it or both parents have it. It’s much more transmissible within a household setting where people are not wearing masks and they’re not distancing because they’re family,” she said.

Last week Shelby County Schools mandated that masks must be worn in all schools to prevent further cases and potential school shutdowns. During the meeting, board members discussed how money has been added to the budget for the hire of three additional school nurses, however finding people to fill said positions is its own problem.

Pelham city schools have also begun student tracing, where the school monitors COVID-19 positive students’ interactions with other students to pinpoint possible exposure. After tracing the student’s interactions, administrators will then contact parents of children who may have been exposed to a positive student.

Superintendent Dr. Scott Coefield brought up the issue of monitoring students at the higher-level grades, saying it is more difficult to monitor students in high school and middle school than students in elementary grades due to higher-level students moving around from class to class. However, Coefield added the top priority is to make sure students are as safe as possible.

“I will tell you the 99 percent of the scientists and medical professionals that are taking care of our children are pretty adamant there is one way to go,” Coefield said. “And as the person who is in charge of making decisions about children, it is very difficult for me to – when I have 100 doctors saying, ‘This is the way you need to take care of your kids’… the whole debate about science narrows very quickly for me because I have to choose who I am going to listen to.”

“The people I am choosing to listen to,” he continued, “are not the people on the news or people out there online with studies, because you can find a study that justifies anything. I have to trust someone, and so the people I choose to trust are the people who are taking care of our kids.”

Hester placed emphasis on the importance of properly wearing masks to prevent mass shutdowns, saying, “It’s our only line of defense against mass quarantines and shutting down our schools.”

“[Masks] are the only line of protection we have for several things. For our medically sensitive kids and their high-risk adults in their house, who are the ones who are dying. Our neighbors, our parents, I lost my cousin yesterday,” Hester said, her voice cracking with emotion. “I think what we’re doing is the best it can possibly be. It is hard data driven, there are specific criteria to meet for each level of litigation.”

Coefield said PCS will continue to send students home if they either test positive or are not properly following safety guidelines.

“Parents have the right to know if their child was in close proximity to someone who is a positive case,” he said. “We’ve been doing that, but we’ve also been quarantining. Now, we’re just notifying [the parents] and leaving it to them.”

“I think we can continue to do what we’ve done in the past related to using common sense and contact tracing,” Coefield continued. “In other words, the kids that we know were close by in the classroom, or maybe on the bus, and we can notify the parents that their kid was a close contact [with someone positive] – the only difference is we’re not quarantining, we’re just notifying. We’re basically saying, ‘Please watch your kid and let us know. Help us to make sure we’re containing that.’ I would rather have that over notifying the whole class and causing a panic.”