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Windsor schools tighten lunch break for young pupils to cut COVID-19 risk

Windsor school district officials have taken an exceptional local approach to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission and need for lengthy quarantines among young students: sharply reduce lunchtime.

It’s the longest period of the day when students are unmasked and in close quarters, district officials say.

Though none of the district’s 30 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the first 14 days of the academic year were linked to in-school virus spread, Superintendent Jeremy Decker said, the overwhelming majority of students required to quarantine as a result — 368 students or about 8% of the district’s student body — are thought to have come into close contact exposure at lunchtime, Decker said.

“Every other time, they’re masked, but at lunch is when none or one had a mask on,” he said.

Lunch periods at the district’s three elementary campuses are 20 minutes. Since a close contact is defined as someone exposed to a COVID-positive person for 15 minutes or longer within a 24-hour period while at least one individual was unmasked, hundreds of students have been swept up in the quarantine requirements.

The solution in Windsor?

Cap unmasked “eating time” during the 20-minute lunch period at 14 minutes — one less minute than would require school officials to send students home from school for 10 days, or seven if they test negative for the infectious disease sooner.

“We could make sure they never came in close contact for more than 15 minutes,” Decker said. “It would keep them safer and they won’t have to do the full quarantine.”

The Windsor Unified School District board endorsed the idea when it directed Decker to implement the 14-minute eating period at a special Aug. 31 board meeting. The board also advanced a directive requiring masks outdoors for students in transitional kindergarten through fifth grade.

The meeting drew about 30 parents, many eager to share their feedback, including criticism of the shorter lunchtime.

“If you can eat at a restaurant, you should be able to eat at school,” said one woman who identified herself as a parent to a Windsor High School student. “Is this policy really on behalf of our children, or is it to ease the minds of adults?”

Both the lunch period policy and the outdoor masking policy affect only Windsor’s young and elementary-age students, for whom vaccination against the coronavirus is not yet an option.

No other local district so far has reported taking the same approach to cut down transmission risk and the scope of quarantines.

The school board plans to reassess both policies in a month along with the rest of the pandemic safety plan, said Stephanie Ahmad, president of the school board.

“What we’re seeing across California are districts that basically are going back to distance learning because so many kids are out in quarantine,” she said. “How can we keep them safe and in school? I think that limiting the amount of time they are coming into contact face-to-face without a mask is how we can accomplish that, especially with younger kids.”

Decker said school officials have found during contact tracing that younger children often don’t remember who they talked to or played or sat with while at recess or lunch. Sonoma County public health officials have advised the schools to send students home if they can’t be ruled out as close contacts, he told parents and the school board during Tuesday’s meeting.

Still, some parents who spoke at the meeting urged the district to forgo quarantine requirements and eschew stricter mask requirements.

"This is traumatizing for kids to constantly to be told, ‘Put your mask on, you’re going to get COVID, you’re going to get sick,’“ one mom said. ”At some point, you as a board have to stand up for our kids.“

Others were supportive of the proposed measures, however, urging aggressive vigilance against the virus that has staged a summer resurgence of infections, hospitalizations and deaths countywide.

"You shouldn’t be making your child want to cry at the idea of going to school, but at the same time, it’s reasonable to have a little bit of fear,“ said Amrita Tromge, a freshman at Windsor High School and the only student to speak at the meeting.

“It’s a global pandemic, and hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people have died, and I think the more realistic thing is that it’s not smart to make your child afraid of putting a piece of fabric on their face,” she said. “It’s not fun, it’s not easy, but it’s completely manageable.”

Decker also said the district will implement mask breaks, so students can ask to exit class if they need a moment to take their mask off, similarly to a bathroom break.

Other plans the school board approved Tuesday will have broad ripples across the Windsor school district. The district is hiring additional staff to handle the burden of contact tracing and communication to the community about cases.

“We need more staff,” Decker said. “It’s running our principals and secretaries and support staff into the ground, doing COVID work.”

The staff would funnel into a more centralized “COVID command center,” through which the district will handle testing, contact tracing with additional support from healthcare professionals and communication.

The district wants to get parents’ questions answered quicker, Decker said. Part of that planned effort includes streamlining their data collection and launching an online data dashboard, similar to other school districts, he said.

Comments at the school board meeting revealed the passion behind the ongoing shifts related to COVID-19 safety in Windsor schools. Community members’ questions and comments expressing opposing viewpoints spilled over with occasional fear and anger.

At times, board members asked attendees to consider that everyone seated across the room had a goal in common: to keep students safe and in school.

“I’m really appreciative that people came and I know people are passionate when they’re thinking about their kids and their kids’ well-being,” Ahmad, the school board leader, said. “It’s not maybe possible to please everyone, but we definitely listened to everyone and take their comments seriously.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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