Initial responses and attendance policies

The last COVID-19 stronghold of Madison County School Districts fell, as Ennis Elementary School reported three COVID-19 cases Oct. 18.

Madison County Board of Health worked to solidify schools’ COVID-19 response plans, as gaps in communication between schools and the Madison County Public Health Department surfaced within the first few positive cases in Madison County Schools. Healthcare providers also stressed the importance for schools to relax their attendance policies at the MCPHB meeting Oct. 15.

“All of our schools in the beginning did a phenomenal job presenting plans for the board of health to review on what they thought their initial response to COVID would be,” Madison County Public Health Nurse Melissa Brummell said. “Now, we’re just trying to finalize it, find the gaps, find out what’s not working well and fill that in so, we can hopefully have great communication throughout these outbreaks. As we know, positive cases are probably not just going to stop.”

Whitney Marsh, Ennis’ school nurse and a member on the Madison County Board of Health, created an algorithm to help communicate expectations for schools’ initial responses to symptomatic students and positive COVID-19 cases. MCPHB approved the algorithm to be dispersed to county schools, daycares, hospitals and healthcare providers.

“This algorithm was designed from an actual local contact tracer,” Madison County Board of Health member Dayna Thergesen said. “Her experience and her expertise working in the schools and as a contact tracer really adds a lot of validation to how we can mitigate the spread and follow our cases effectively.”

According to the Madison County Sanitarian Van Puckett, a difficult problem for Madison County schools is students and staff coming to school with COVID-19 symptoms. Parents and staff are the first line of defense in preventing COVID-19 spreading in schools. All county schools have plans for remote learning when students or teachers participating in in-person instruction cannot come into school because they are sick.

Marsh’s algorithm specifies that a single low-risk symptom, like a persisting dry cough rather than an onset cough, is reason to stay home from school. Thergesen, a Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner working in three primary care hospitals in Beaverhead, Silver-Bow and Madison counties, said that this a single low-risk symptom does not always require a medical examination.

“I’ve had some parents pushing me to evaluate [their children] and say they have something else, which I can’t always do, so they can have a note to be excused from school,” Thergesen said.

All Madison County Schools have made their 10-day attendance policies more flexible than typical school years. The goal is to encourage parents to keep sick children at home. But schools are addressing attendance policies differently. Harrison School and Sheridan School officially waved their attendance policies this year to prioritize students to stay home if they are sick. A parent needs to call the school, but a doctor’s note is not required for the day to be excused.

“There is never a reason, now, to not keep your kid at home or take your kid to the doctor, at least in Harrison,” Harrison Superintendent Fred Hofman said.

Twin Bridges Schools and Ennis Schools did not wave their attendance policies but are relying on parents to communicate with them about school absences regarding illness. Twin Bridges Superintendent Thad Kaiser said the school will look for as many opportunities as possible to excuse students’ illness-related absences. Ennis Schools require a general reason for why a student is absent to determine if it is excused. A doctor’s note is “strongly encouraged” at Ennis Schools, if the absence is illness related.

“Expecting the clinics and doctors and nurses to crank out letters for every time a kid is sick is not realistic,” Hofman said.

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The Madisonian

65 N. MT Hwy 287
Ennis, MT 59729

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