As Portage County copes with the COVID-19 delta variant, some Aurora parents say they’ve lost faith in the Aurora Board of Education and administration to do what they feel is the right thing — issue a longstanding mask mandate for the school district.
On Nov. 12, Leighton Elementary School closed for a day after COVID-19 cases at the school spiked, according to Superintendent Michael Roberto. It reopened Nov. 15, but at that point, the rising number of cases had triggered a mask mandate for the district.
“We have been experiencing a spike in the number of positive cases at Leighton over the last four days,” Roberto said in a Nov. 11 announcement that Leighton would be closed the next day. “Today, we were notified that nine more of our Leighton students and one additional staff member were recently categorized as being placed in isolation due to testing positive for COVID-19.”
Between Nov. 12 and Nov. 19, the total absences for the district (including isolations and quarantines) ranged from 232 to 260, according to the district’s online COVID-19 dashboard.
That spike at Leighton topped out at 57 students in isolation on Nov. 13, according to the school district’s online COVID-19 dashboard. That means 57 students tested positive for the disease. The average for the week was 51.8 students in isolation, due to testing positive for COVID-19.
Aurora parent Dr. Rick Watkins, an infectious disease physician, said his daughter was among those who contracted COVID-19, adding that he’s disappointed Roberto hasn’t enacted a long-term mask mandate.
“He could have implemented a mandatory masking policy from the beginning of the school year,” said Watkins. “He has the power to do it, and he has chosen to ignore the scientific evidence for whatever reason.”
Portage County Health Commissioner Joseph Diorio also said he would rather see Aurora and other districts require masks.
“Obviously, from my standpoint, it’s better that they have the masks in place as a precaution rather than not having them,” he said. “You know, I think our data suggests very strongly from last year, that having the masks in place made a difference.”
While acknowledging that there is likely some spread of COVID-19 at school, Roberto said parents should not discount outside of school activities as places where the disease is spread.
“I don’t think it’s probably accurate to just only look at the schools, whether a school is masking or whether a school doesn’t mask,” he said. “We have folks that are doing other things outside of school. They’re going to the store or they’re going to birthday parties or they’re going to sleepovers or they had basketball practice. So that’s why it’s tough, but that’s why we can only control what we can which is why we’re looking at masking now.”
He also said the system seemed to be working well up until the recent outbreak at Leighton. He said he feels the district’s 20-point data system that triggers a masking mandate when any 15 data points reach a level of concern is “pretty sensitive.”
“But, you know, we can always re-evaluate that,” he said. “In fact, that’s what we did at Leighton when we saw the numbers running up.”
He said masking was required for the elementary school the week prior to the Nov. 12 closure at the elementary school.
Parent Alison Dubsky said she’s upset that Aurora’s system for determining whether masks will be required isn’t getting a second look in light of the recent absences districtwide following the outbreak at Leighton.
“Our children getting sick is an acceptable outcome to them,” she said. “That’s really hard to take when the younger kids are just becoming eligible for the vaccine. The callousness and cruelty is really hard to take as a parent because … their actions to me say they don’t care.”
Several parents, who wished to remain unnamed to protect their children against retribution, said that a teacher at Leighton was noticeably unhealthy and unmasked during the last week of October through about Nov. 2. At the time the teacher was unmasked, masks were optional.
Roberto said employees, staff and students ought to stay home if they have any symptoms that could be COVID-19.
“If they’re not feeling good, this is not the year to tough it out and come to work,” he said.
On the worst day for attendance districtwide, Nov. 15, there were five students in either isolation or quarantine at the high school, 15 at Harmon Middle School, 68 at Leighton, 24 at Craddock Elementary School, and 13 at Miller Elementary School, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.
On that day, 260 students were absent, including those in quarantine and isolation in addition to the students who were absent for some other reason.
Marybeth Keeler, another parent, said both her daughters contractedCOVID-19, including one who is a fourth-grader at Leighton Elementary School.
“To say the optional masking has worked is ludicrous; it hasn’t worked at all,” she said. “I feel for the teachers who have to go into that, too. They’re exposed to a huge number of students. I’m really frustrated with the district. It’s really dangerous.”
Do you have a business or healthcare story you’d like to share? Reporter Bob Gaetjens can be reached at 330-541-9440, email@example.com and @bobgaetjens_rc.