Kathy Dzewaltowski, observer
The bulk of the meeting was spent discussing the district’s mask mandate and whether to extend it. The NEA representatives reported that they had surveyed members at the high school level and had received 55 responses. Of the responses received, 62% favored continuing the mask mandate, 27% wanted to discontinue the mandate, and 11% were on the fence. Board members were appreciative of having some idea how teachers felt about the mask mandate.
Dr. Marvin Wade, Superintendent, began the mask mandate discussion with saying the district is nine weeks into the year and COVID numbers have been steady and improving. There has been ample time to get vaccinated, so vaccination rates will likely not change much going forward. Dr. Wade’s recommendation was to allow students, staff, and visitors at MHS East and West Campuses to stop wearing masks beginning Nov. 1. He realized there could be consequences with more people in quarantine, but also wondered when should the district try not wearing masks? He added that the intent was never that masks would be worn for the entire time of COVID until it went away, but rather, masks were a mitigation measure to use until other factors allowed for success without masks. Dr. Wade’s recommendation was for mask wearing to continue at the elementary level, middle schools, and early learning centers because those age levels aren’t able to get vaccinated yet. All students would still be required to wear masks when in a district vehicle.
Board members shared their views about the mask mandate. Katrina Lewison thought it’s the board’s role is to provide conditions for success and to keep students and teachers in school as well as have enough staff to stay open. If the district moved forward with no masks at the high school level, there would likely be consequences and she struggled with the potential risk. Consequences would affect unvaccinated students, so she encouraged the community to get vaccinated. Karla Hagemeister said she agreed with Ms. Lewison’s comments. She was concerned about nurses’ offices, which are typically small spaces where students might be sick, and she wondered if masks should be required for nurses’ offices. She also hoped that if a teacher has a health concern and asked students to voluntarily wear masks that people would have empathy for each other. Ms. Hagemeister didn’t want a group to feel like they’re guinea pigs, and the situation didn’t escape her.
Curt Herrman said he was relying on the recommendation of the medical advisory team that supported the updated plan of making masks optional at the high school level. Darell Edie didn’t believe masks work and mentioned that he hadn’t seen outbreaks resulting from crowds. He was concerned about proposed language in the updated plan that encouraged vaccination for children under 12.
Kristin Brighton said she was struggling with the proposal and looked at the situation as what’s the risk versus the reward. If masks were optional at the high school level, there will be more students in quarantine. She questioned how wearing masks impeded learning at the high school level. The community vaccination rate is 37%, which likely means there are many unvaccinated students, and masks help to reduce the virus’ spread. She thought a large part of mask wearing is related to peer pressure, and students are vulnerable to peer pressure and would succumb and remove their masks. She noted that we’re at the point of people getting boosters and close to approval for younger children to be vaccinated, and so she wondered if it might be smarter to wait a couple of more months before rescinding a mask mandate.
Brandy Santos commented that her opinion hasn’t changed, which is mask wearing is a health decision that should be left to parents. The district’s responsibility is to keep kids safe while at school, but health issues should be parental decisions. Jurdene Coleman said she was leaning on the medical advisory team because they’re the experts. She thought managing the spread of a virus feels different than managing one’s own personal health. She didn’t see a real tipping point that if certain factors are in place, then she would feel confident in saying no to masks, but the district has to ease into change and starting with a group that has had the opportunity to be vaccinated will help to show what we’re dealing with. She also emphasized that the board could make a course correction in the future if making masks optional seems to be a mistake.
Board members were agreeable to rephrasing the language about encouraging vaccinations to make Mr. Edie feel more comfortable. Ms. Santos moved to make masks optional for all USD 383 students and staff, and the motion failed 2-5, with Ms. Santos and Mr. Edie voting in favor of the motion. Mr. Herrman moved to approve the updated pandemic response plan as presented by administration with a review to occur prior to Nov. 19, and the motion carried 6-1 with Ms. Brighton voting against the motion.
The updated pandemic response plan makes masks optional at MHS East and West Campuses and at district support buildings. All students must wear masks on buses/district vehicles. Students, staff, and visitors are required to continue wearing masks at middle schools, elementary schools, and early learning centers. Schools can begin to allow a limited number of volunteers into the building. No visitors are allowed in cafeterias during meal times.