After nearly two weeks out of the classroom, missing out on therapy services he so desperately needs, first grader Glenn O’Dell has returned to Beckemeyer Elementary School.
The son of Coran and Tori O’Dell of Panama, he was exposed to COVID in a classroom setting at the school on Sept. 22. Although O’Dell was wearing a mask, the Hillsboro School District can no longer require all students to wear masks due to a temporary restraining order, first issued on Sept. 17 and upheld in court on Sept. 24.
Currently, positive COVID cases in both the community and the school district are trending downward. However, the district is seeing a rise in close contacts per positive case, as well as mandatory quarantines per case.
According to Superintendent David Powell, from the beginning of the year through Sept. 17, close contacts per positive case were 5.5, with .9 mandatory quarantines per positive case. Since Sept. 20, close contacts per case is 9.4, with 8.6 mandatory quarantines per case. Powell said that’s due to several factors when both parties are not wearing masks, including the increase in radius from three feet to six feet and the loss of the test to stay option. Prior to Sept. 20, lunchtime in the cafeteria was the only chance kids could be exposed without masks, and now that exposure falls in the classroom as well.
Because not all the kids in his classroom were wearing masks at the time of his exposure to COVID, O’Dell did not qualify for the test to stay program, and his family cooperated with the district’s request for quarantine.
“I got a call in the middle of a work day that Glenn had been exposed and that I had to come and pick him up,” said his mom, Tori. “They told me I needed to call the health department to figure out a plan.”
After reaching out to the health department, the O’Dells found out that Glenn would need to quarantine for five days and then he could take a regular COVID test (not a rapid one).
If it came back negative, he could return to school early. His test on Sept. 28 came back negative and Glenn returned to his classroom on Monday, Oct. 4, after more than a week and a half out.
“That may not seem like a lot of time, but he’s not a neuro-typical kid,” Tori said of Glenn, who has been diagnosed with autism. “He doesn’t get breaks from school like other kids because he falls off his routine and starts losing skills.”
His mom went on to explain that autism is a social disorder, which does not affect Glenn’s comprehension or intelligence, but rather his ability to interact with his peers in a social setting.
When all school districts went to remote learning in March 2020, O’Dell felt like they lost a lot of ground in the skills they had been working so hard to reach.
“Technically, he is considered non-verbal, although he has a large vocabulary. He just doesn’t know how to functionally use those words in a social setting,” she said. “Over a year and a half later, we’re still trying to catch up.”
For the O’Dells, universal masks are just one way that gives all kids the chance to stay in school.
“We had a really great year in kindergarten last year,” she said. “They were able to keep the schools open all year, and we were lucky that we didn’t have to quarantine.”
The O’Dells have been pleased that Glenn has been able to be in the regular classroom more than they expected.
“It’s important for the other kids to interact with Glenn too, because as they grow up, they will make decisions that affect Glenn and kids like Glenn,” Tori said. “One of the really great things about our school district is that they work so hard at inclusion. They do a really great job, and that’s through the hard work of teachers and parents.”
As the temporary restraining order continues to remain in place, the O’Dells worry about another pause to in-person learning.
“We can’t get him the services he needs at home,” she said. “He needs to be in a social setting, and we rely on the school district for services.”
O’Dell said currently the only therapy services Glenn receives are at the school district, as they continue to struggle with insurance for outside services. In addition, the family had to cancel an appointment for a new kind of therapy they waited months for because Glenn had been exposed to COVID.
“If all the kids had worn masks, Glenn would have been able to test to stay, and since he was negative, we could have gone to that appointment,” Tori said. “Now, we don’t even have a new date yet.”
She’s hopeful that by starting a new therapy program, Glenn will make enough progress he will once again be eligible for additional speech therapy services outside the school.
Another aspect of additional quarantines is that it’s often hard to find childcare for working parents. For the O’Dells, it’s even harder because not everyone is equipped to care for Glenn.
“I can’t just hire a babysitter,” Tori said. “We’re really lucky that our family is able to step up when we need it, but not all families are that lucky.”
Especially, when the solution of universal masking cuts down on exposure to COVID at school.
“It’s hard for me to listen to the idea that masks are a violation of students’ rights,” Tori said. “I have a child that falls into a category of typically being oppressed, as do many kids with special needs or disabilities. He has a right to the same education as other kids.”
She added that she understands kids don’t always like to wear masks, but noted parents often enforce things kids may not want to do, like eating vegetables or going to bed.
“But having an option not to wear a mask actually intrudes on my child’s right to an equal education,” she said. “Sometimes you have to have the discernment to say maybe it’s not fair that kids have to wear masks, but it’s just the way it is.”