Active COVID-19 cases among Warren County Public Schools students have more than tripled since the district dispensed with its universal masking policy Nov. 1, the school district’s case dashboard shows.

On Oct. 25, one week before the school district pivoted to a mask-optional policy for its schools, WCPS reported 19 active student cases on its dashboard. That number has since grown to at least 73 active student cases as of Tuesday afternoon.

For comparison, the Bowling Green Independent School District – which has chosen to keep its universal masking requirement for at least one more month – reported 17 active student cases on its district dashboard Tuesday morning.

“At the Warren County Public Schools monthly board meeting on Oct. 21, 2021, board members voted to make face coverings optional in our school facilities and extra-curricular events, beginning Nov. 1, 2021,” a statement from a WCPS spokesperson attributed to Superintendent Rob Clayton said Tuesday.

“At that time, our community was experiencing a consistent decline in confirmed COVID-19 cases. During the past couple of weeks, COVID-19 cases in our schools have mirrored the steady increase we are currently experiencing throughout our community.

“During today’s Kentucky Department of Education Commissioner’s webcast, Dr. Connie White, Deputy Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Health, expressed optimism that we may have reached a plateau of COVID cases based upon current data and previous trends throughout the pandemic. However, consistent with our approach from the beginning of the pandemic, we will continue to monitor the fluctuation of data daily and any adjustments made to our current COVID protocols will be communicated to our families in as timely a manner as possible.”

Explaining the policy shift, Clayton said last month he was making the recommendation to go mask-optional based on factors like improvements to local hospital capacity, community virus incidence rate and the district’s quarantine rate and quarantine numbers.

“Based on these metrics, we’re optimistic that we can continue to provide in-person instruction five days per week with masks being an option,” Clayton said during the district’s school board meeting last month.

That said, the district’s school board and superintendent were also under pressure by parents opposed to universal masking in schools and who frequently showed up during board meetings to voice their displeasure.

Children, including very young children, can and do develop COVID-19. Those who do get sick tend to experience milder symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and cough. However, some children have had severe complications, though this has been less common.

Compared with adults, children and adolescents who are infected with coronavirus are more commonly asymptomatic or have mild, non-specific symptoms (e.g. headache, sore throat). Similar to adults with coronavirus infections, children and adolescents can spread coronavirus to others when they do not have symptoms or have mild, non-specific symptoms and thus might not know that they are infected and infectious, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The change to making face coverings optional in the district’s schools also came with a shift in its quarantine protocol.

Students who aren’t exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms – such as fever, new cough, difficulty breathing, sore throat, muscle and body aches, vomiting or diarrhea or new loss of taste or smell – are no longer required to quarantine in the event of an exposure to COVID-19 at school.

However, per its COVID-19 protocol posted on the district’s website, quarantining will continue for exposures that take place outside of school “because these cases are under the authority of our local health department.”

The new policy is out of step with guidance from state and national public health experts. Both the Kentucky Department of Education and the CDC urge universal masking in schools for all children age 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status.

Masks are also still required on the district’s school buses, Clayton wrote in a recent message posted on the district’s website.

“Although masks are now optional in our school buildings and on school property, please know that masks are still required on our school buses. This is due to the large number of students who sit in close proximity with one another for an extended period of time,” Clayton wrote.

WCPS initially began the year without mandating masks but soon reversed course and implemented a requirement after hundreds of students and staff entered quarantine within the first week of school. At one point, the number of students in quarantine reached at least 1,700.

In recent weeks, as more school districts across the state have moved to a mask-optional approach, Gov. Andy Beshear has urged local school boards to keep the mask mandates in place, warning it would erase statewide improvements to COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“The first thing that would pop these numbers back up is if we came off universal masking in schools,” Beshear said at a news conference last month.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

– Follow education reporter Aaron Mudd on Twitter @NewsByAaron or visit bgdailynews.com.

Education reporter. Covers education and related issues, focusing primarily on the Bowling Green and Warren County public school districts and Western Kentucky University.

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