COVID concerns at Vicksburg school board meeting

By Jef Rietsma

County health departments, not school districts, are responsible for declaring outbreaks of diseases, Vicksburg Supt. Keevin O’Neill told board members and the mother of a Tobey Elementary student who tested positive for COVID-19.

He defended the district’s transparency about the spread of the disease within the district.

Erin Hoekstra at the board’s April 12 meeting said O’Neill hadn’t been forthright when he neglected to mention students at her child’s K-5 school who tested positive for the disease. O’Neill in the email she cited had written that “the high school setting has proven to be safe, as we have no evidence of any outbreaks or person-to-person spread in the school.”

“Although your clever wording specifically referenced the high school, you conveniently made no reference to Tobey Elementary or the middle school,” said Hoekstra, herself a teacher. Her third grade son tested positive March 19. She said parents deserved to know of the classroom situation and that it was, in her opinion, a bona fide outbreak.

O’Neill said the declaration of an outbreak is not theirs to make. Such a declaration, he said, is made by county health officials, who report to state health officials.

The school district’s website has listed each instance of students or staff member testing positive. No names are used, the school and number of persons who tested positive is shown in a letter, signed by O’Neill. In most letters, a single student or staff member is reported. In a few, two students in a building have tested positive. The site says 33 students or staff members tested positive in April by late in the month. Another 30 tested positive in March. The site is at

At Tobey, six students and two staff members tested positive in March. Letters posted on March 9 and 12 referred to staff members. One Tobey student tested positive in letters issued March 16, 17, 26 and 29, and two students on March 22.

A positive test resulted in contact tracing. But O’Neill said no tracing was conducted in cases where a student hadn’t been in school for several days prior to the test.

“We were transparent about every case the minute the staff member tested positive,” O’Neill said. “We immediately quarantined the entire class and as those cases came out, we notified every family in this district about those cases.”

“We’ve been transparent about every case in our schools, including providing a notification every time we have a positive case, which isn’t even required,” O’Neill said. “We try to go above and beyond to make sure every family knows every time we do have a case. We’re always going to be transparent. Always.”

In an interview after the meeting, O’Neill said his comments cited by Hoekstra had been specific and about the high school.

“The district prides itself on transparency and has worked hard to notify parents about every case.  Furthermore, all Tobey third grade families were notified of the additional student cases on March 18th.”

“In fact, Tobey Elementary principal Mike Barwegen emailed Mrs. Hoekstra specifically on March 22,” he added. “This was the first instance of apparent person-to-person transmission, which would meet the definition of an outbreak, that the school district is aware of. It is our understanding that the designation of ‘outbreak’ is determined and communicated to the state by the health department as explained at the April Board of Education meeting.”

“Importantly, all of the required steps and procedures were followed by Tobey Elementary staff and district administration.  While it is unfortunate that students appear to have been infected at school, the fact that these infections occurred after the students were quarantined offers evidence that the procedures worked effectively and exactly as they were designed.  All of these cases were reported to the health department and parents even though they occurred after the students had been quarantined at home for several days,” O’Neill continued.  

County health director Jim Rutherford acknowledged that outbreaks happen, “when two or more than two individuals from different households all test positive and have been in close contact.”
He said he has talked to O’Neill.

“They did everything correctly,” Rutherford said. “We’ve come to terms with the fact that public health at the national level doesn’t have the ability to do all contact tracing.”

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