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School district reopening plans hashed out for Gilman

“We just want to make it known we’re concerned about the chemical you’ll have us spray in the buses.”

Those words from driver Jim Hendricks began the regular Gilman School Board meeting Aug. 17. Henricks and a couple other drivers appeared before the board, to question the cleaning solution the school was planning to use. Driver Dan Schmitt said he has done research and that instructions for the chemical in question, say to only use in a well-ventilated area and that it is not for use in a mister, which is how Gilman planned to apply it.

Schmitt said he is concerned about putting himself at risk for the 180 days needed to transport students. He also mentioned that because the solution is waterbased, that it’s likely frozen mud will occur in the buses in winter.

“There are other alternatives we can do, I’m sure,” said Schmitt.

Wally Leipart, superintendent, said the product was recommended by CESA and is safe to use in its application level, which is one ounce of solution to a gallon of water. The cleaning solution is the same product the district intended to use to sanitize inside the school. However, Leipart said he will go back to CESA and share the drivers’ concerns, to see if there is a different product to use.

“We weren’t trying to do something that was going to harm kids, let alone harm our bus drivers,” said Leipart.

While at the meeting, the drivers also questioned talk about a busing contract. Currently, there is no contract in place to pay for busing services that don’t take place, if a shutdown of the district would occur, such as what happened this past March. Leipart said if the school pays drivers without receiving a service, it’s in violation of state statutes.

“While it hasn’t been a problem now, we want to make sure that it doesn’t become a problem when,” said Leipart, adding that the board will look at putting in a pandemic clause, to maintain the contract, maintain the relationship and not put an economic hardship on the drivers. “No decisions have been made yet, outside of saying that we do have to disinfect the buses.”

As of Aug. 17, there were 78 cases of COVID-19 in Taylor County, putting the county in the high-risk margin. With that in mind, Gilman School is following the state mandated order requiring face masks to be worn by staff and students inside the building.

“We’ve really done a great job of keeping the infection rate low in our community and we want to keep it that way,” said Leipart. “We don’t have a single case in the Gilman census tract.”

The district continues to collaborate with local health officials and comply with state orders, as staff goes about keeping the building safe and maintaining an open building for all students, every day. Leipart said with health department guidance, the school looks at practical means within the district, which includes absentee protocol. The school would be considered low risk if it sees less than a 5% absentee rate.

“In our district, that would be 15 students,” said Leipart.

The district would need to isolate those 15 until they are healthy again, which means quarantine at home. If the district is over 5%, or moderate risk, those figures would require initializing more strict social distancing and limiting the number of people in the building. If Gilman reaches 10%, officials would look at closing the building for short periods of time.

“I think that’s really important,” said Leipart. “At 10%, it doesn’t mean we’re just closed.”

At 10%, the school would have roughly 30 people out because of the virus, which Leipart said seems like a lot.

“In a lot of respects, it kind of is,” said Leipart. “That’s a whole grade level for us.”

It’s not entirely as grim as it sounds, though, as one person who is infected, has the potential of infecting 10 people.

“So, you just do your simple math, we could potentially have 30 people out, but only three positive cases,” said Leipart, who mentioned that the health department will not close the school at that point. “Department of Health doesn’t want to come in and close our buildings. They want that to be a local decision.”

Board member Darrell Thompson asked what face masks will be deemed acceptable. Leipart said the school will follow the state mandate and that they have 1,000 disposable masks, and are purchasing 500 reusable masks.

“It’ll say Gilman Pirates on it,” he said.

Leipart said they also recognize that there is a social and emotional piece to consider.

“Even with the facial coverings, we know that this is going to be a challenge for some people,” said Leipart, who added that sometimes, people need a break to remove the face mask. “We’re going to look at creating spaces in our building that would be mask-free zones.”

Such a place might be the courtyard for an extended supervised break. Leipart says the school will make accommodations if someone is unable to wear face coverings.

“We understand,” he said. “We’re not just hard-core, gonna come in here and be facial covering police officers.”

Jon Hess, principal, said their goal is to balance the necessary health and safety precautions, and still give a high quality education.

“Based on the information we have, we are doing our best to prepare for five days a week,” said Hess.

The plans are fluid and depending on what happens as the school year unfolds, the district may have to live stream band/choir events, as well as sports events.

For now, facility use will be suspended, and visitors and parents will go to Door 1, with access limited to essential visitors only. Sneeze shields will be installed anywhere kids/staff can’t distance.

“We can’t have people using the building right now,” said Leipart. “Our staff is going to be stretched to the max to clean it, just so our kids can be in here.”

Leipart said he understands some families may not want to come to in-person classes because of the face covering order. He says he wants to talk to staff at the upcoming in-service, to see if there is a way to do a blended type of learning.

“Right now, our options are, you come to school fulltime or you go to eSucceed (virtual charter school), if you don’t want to be in the building,” Leipart said.