Health board changes two orders to advisories

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(Posted Dec. 2, 2020)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Messenger

The Madison County Public Health board is advising schools to close their buildings until Jan. 1 but is no longer requiring them to do so. The same goes for sports and extracurricular activities across the county. Community events and festivals are still off-limits through Jan. 1.

Originally, at a special meeting on Nov. 24, the board passed health orders requiring schools to go to full remote learning, suspending sports and extracurriculars, and suspending community events from Nov. 30 through Jan. 1, citing the high incidence of COVID-19 in the county.

After the orders were issued, a large number of school educators, coaches, parents and community leaders contacted the health department to express opposition to or support of the orders, said Teresa Ames, board president.

Based on the feedback, Chris Cook, the county health commissioner, proposed exceptions to the order to close schools and the order to suspend sports and extracurricular activities. The proposed exceptions were: to allow high school seniors to sit for end-of-term exams, a requirement for graduation; to allow schools to provide in-school instruction to students with low-incidence disabilities; and to allow sports teams (school, club, travel and recreational) to meet for skills and strength training under no-touch, distancing guidelines.

The board held a special meeting on Dec. 2. The agenda included the school closure and sports suspension orders with the proposed exceptions, as well as the order to suspend community events.

The board voted down the school closure and sports suspension orders. All four board members present voted “no.” They included Ames, Julie Harris, Robin Kimbler and Ruth Roddy. Board member Dr. Katherine Binns was absent. The board unanimously approved the order that all community events be suspended through Jan. 1.

In place of the orders to close schools and suspend sports, the board voted unanimously to issue health advisories recommending that schools remain closed and sports be suspended through Jan. 1. The difference between orders and advisories is that orders must be followed while advisories are recommendations.

The advisory about school closures states that all schools must meet the six-foot distancing rule between people not of the same household if schools remain open.

The advisory about sports suspensions requires that all schools meet all state and local safety guidelines if sports and extracurriculars continue.

Board members did not comment on the agenda items during the meeting. At the start of the meeting, Ames said the board had read every email they received from the public about the orders issued on Nov. 24 and appreciated the time people took to provide feedback. At the end of the meeting, she thanked the health department staff and Cook for the work they’ve been doing in response to the pandemic. She also asked that the public help to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks, social distancing, and not gathering with anyone from outside their households.

After the meeting, Ames stated that the board believes schools need to be closed. She said the board knows the schools have put in strong efforts to make their buildings as safe as possible, but added that students still go home to parents, grandparents and neighbors.

She said the board switched from orders to advisories on school closures and sports/extracurriculars suspensions as a compromise.

“We heard from many people in our community, asking for some other solution. We want people to know we heard their resistance to the orders and want to work with them by offering a solution that protects our entire community and still gives schools and parents an opportunity for their students’ education not to be interrupted,” she said.

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