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ASHLAND The Ashland Board of Education is sticking with its decision to reopen school Monday for in-person classes, despite concerns cases of the COVID-19 virus are increasing and sending children to school could spread the virus further.

One member voted against the measure. “I want as much as anyone for those kids to go back to school, but my conscience in good faith will not let me vote for that, so I vote no,” Patsy Lindsey said.

“It was a tough decision. We naturally think about our kids going back to the classroom, but we worry about our community too,” board chair Bruce Morrison said. “It was something I’ve been battling with for a while. It’s something we need to at least try so we can help parents who are struggling with the virtual element.”

Morrison said he was “100% confident” that teachers and staff have taken ample precautions for safety and for safely dealing with any cases that hit the schools.

The board also expanded its mask mandate to require all students from kindergarten through 12th grade to wear them. Previously kindergarteners were to be exempt from the mask rule.

Those with medical exemptions and individual learning plans will remain exempt.

Surveys of staff and families show majorities favor return to in-person and about two-thirds are committed to face-to-face classes, Superintendent Sean Howard said.

Return plans have been designed to minimize exposure, principals said.

Families continue to have to option to remain in virtual learning.

Temperature checks and screening will be standard for all students at all schools before entering.

Some of the changes at the high school level are designed to limit congregating and socializing.

Students at Paul Blazer High will start their day in the gymnasium lobby and will not be allowed to go to other areas where students tend to congregate and socialize before school, principal Jamie Campbell said. They will be able to take grab-and-go breakfasts before their first class.

High school students will be issued admittance tickets each day and will use them to enter the multiple classroom buildings on the Blazer campus, he said. To enter, students will show and surrender the tickets, which are color-coded for each day. Students without tickets will be required to repeat the screening process.

Students will use their electronic devices in the classroom because their teachers will be conducting in-person and virtual classes simultaneously, he said. Students will transition from class to class three times each day; dismissal times will be staggered to minimize traffic on the sidewalks between buildings.

Students will not use lockers. Lunch will be in assigned seats in assigned home rooms.

Seats are assigned for contact tracing purposes, he said. The health department would be in charge of that and would make decisions on any students to be quarantined.

At the end of the day, students who drive, walk or are picked up will be dismissed first, and bus passengers will stay in classrooms until buses arrive, because those are the students most likely to congregate, Campbell said. “If you’re a high school student and expecting to go to Blazer High School and look like it did before, you’re mistaken,” he said.

Ashland Middle School’s plan is similar in calling for minimal class changes — students will be in the same rooms for five of seven daily periods, principal David Greene said. That will minimize hallway traffic.

The virtual schedule will be changing because teachers and administrators have concluded students need more instruction time, he said.

At the elementaries, children will remain in their classrooms except for lunch, bathroom breaks and recess, Hager principal Phillip Caudill said. Directional signs in hallways will keep children distanced. Children will not share school supplies. Dismissals will be staggered.

Children remaining in virtual education will have a different teacher.

The new mask rule applies to all staff and students kindergarten through 12th grade, and will be enforced vigorously. The rules apply to all school property, including buses.

The 4-1 board vote comes at a time when COVID-19 is surging and demand for hospital care of virus patients in increasing, according to information from King’s Daughters Medical Center.

The hospital has opened a second COVID-19 unit and is preparing a third, and other area hospitals are seeing similar demand, according to information posted on the KDMC Facebook page.

The virus is “intensely surging” and is infecting people of all ages and health statuses, according to KDMC president and CEO Kristie Whitlatch.

Pediatric cases represent 12.8% of the total in September, compared to 7.8% in August.

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