Coronavirus

Community spread.

Those two words should concern Killeen-area residents as COVID-19 case numbers continue to rise in the Killeen school district.

As of Friday, the school district was reporting 400 active cases of the coronavirus across its 51 campuses. Overall, the infection rate was less than 1% — 0.81, to be exact. And a total of 400 cases in a district of more than 43,000 students and 6,800 staff may not seem like much.

But what is concerning is not the number but the trend.

As of last Monday, the district was reporting 219 active cases, and infection rate of 0.44%.

In other words, in just one week of classes, the number of cases and district infection rate have nearly doubled — all this ahead of the Labor Day weekend, where families are bound to travel or gather for activities.

In addition, as of last Monday, eight campuses were reporting no active COVID cases. By Friday, all district schools except Gateway High School were reporting at least one case of the virus.

And while the overall district infection rate is low, some campuses have seen disturbing spikes in recent days. Saegert Elementary in Killeen was reporting 33 cases as of Friday, Willow Springs Elementary had 22 cases and Timber Ridge had 21.

A single campus, Killeen High School, had 38 cases Friday, accounting for nearly 10% of all COVID cases in the district.

The district’s COVID protocols call for consideration of temporarily closing a campus if its infection rate reaches 5%. No KISD schools are close that threshold yet, but Saegert’s rate was at 3.26% Friday and Willow Springs was showing a 2.61% rate.

Given the surge in cases over the past week, a continued spike in cases following the four-day holiday weekend is a distinct possibility — and that means some campuses may need to be shut down.

Already, the deadly virus has taken its toll on learning with 321 student cases and 79 staff cases as of Friday. Each of those individuals is required district protocols, which means quarantining for 10 days. That’s nearly two weeks of lost instruction for hundreds of students and two weeks out of the classroom for dozens of teachers.

The pandemic has taken a far more serious toll as well.

As of Thursday night, the district acknowledged that two KISD employees had died of COVID at two separate campuses. The Herald had unconfirmed reports that two others had lost their lives to the virus as well.

Certainly, the students, teachers and staff at the schools where these employees worked are grieving their loss — as are their families. The district has pledged to provide counseling and guidance at these campuses, and that is no doubt needed at such a difficult time.

But the district must do more to protect students and staff as the virus continues to spread throughout the district — and the community.

For one thing, KISD administrators must work to ensure that COVID protocols are being strictly observed and enforced at all district campuses, on buses and at other KISD facilities.

Part of that regimen involves testing and tracking of individuals who experience COVID-like symptoms. That’s important, but at present, the district only recognizes the results of PCR lab tests in determining whether someone is infected. KISD does not recognize rapid testing for COVID. As a result, the district may be underreporting the number of COVID infections on its online dashboard, especially since some rapid tests are known to produce false negatives.

The district has the right to base its case numbers only on specified lab tests, for consistency’s sake. But in the interest of full transparency, KISD should also provide the rapid test numbers, to give residents the total picture.

Most importantly, KISD should follow the lead of Salado ISD’s superintendent, who announced Aug. 26 that the district will impose a mask mandate in schools where the COVID infection rate reaches 2%

If that policy were enforced in Killeen ISD, five campuses would be facing mask mandates right now — three of them elementaries, whose students are too young to be eligible for COVID vaccinations.

KISD Superintendent John Craft has consistently rejected the idea of a district-wide mask mandate — even though eight district schools are currently under one, because they are on federal property at Fort Hood.

Gov. Greg Abbott in late July issued an executive order forbidding governmental entities — including school districts — to mandate the wearing of masks. Despite the fact that more than 60 school district and 10 counties have defied the order, neither Craft nor the KISD school board have shown an interest in bucking the ban, which is currently tied up in the state’s appellate courts.

Still, a mask requirement that is triggered by a surge in cases, rather than a one-size-fits-all mandate across all district campuses, would be easier to justify to those who might seek to challenge the mandate in court.

Again, it comes back to community spread.

Students at campuses with high case numbers are more likely to bring the virus back home to their families — many of whom may have health concerns and would be highly vulnerable.

Unmasked students in schools with high infection rates are also more likely to pass the virus on to teachers and staff members.

And most importantly, unprotected students — those who are not wearing masks and are too young to be eligible for the COVID vaccine — pose a significant risk to the community at-large, especially unvaccinated residents.

At a time when the case numbers are declining slightly across Bell County, the case counts are rising sharply across Killeen ISD. In fact, as of Friday, the district accounted for 400 out of the county’s 1,886 active COVID cases — an eye-opening 21.2% Just five days earlier, on Monday, that number was 11.3%.

District and campus administrators can seize control of the current upsurge in COVID cases — but only if they take a more proactive approach. That means getting personally involved in the policy and doing everything possible to ensure KISD’s students, teachers and staff are safe.

That’s going to mean doing a lot more than keeping one eye on the COVID dashboard and hoping for the best.

How our community fares in the coming months depends on it.

dmiller@kdhnews.com | 254-501-7543

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