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Mask debate leads Gering patrons to discusse transparency, student health

Mask debate leads Gering patrons to discusse transparency, student health

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The Gering Public Schools Board of Education meeting got hot and heavy Monday night as expected by both patrons and school board members and district administration, which brought in security from the Gering Police Department as an extra precaution for the evening.

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Nine district patrons got up to speak during the comment period, seven of which opposing the board and district’s recent decisions regarding masks and student health choices.

After breezing through the first eight agenda items in about a half hour, the ninth item of patron comments lasted nearly twice that. Multiple patrons got up to voice their opinions on mask mandates, administration communication and board decisions. Many cited statistics regarding COVID-19’s effect, both physically and emotionally, on children.

“(There are) a total of under 2000 cases right there all the way through COVID zero to 19,” Jennifer Schlothauer, a Gering parent and nurse practitioner, said, citing data she pulled from Panhandle Public Health’s website. “…We’ve had five 0-9 (age) hospitalizations in the Panhandle. … We’ve had four 10- to 19-year-olds hospitalized in the Panhandle.”

Kristen Beamon said, “Forcing kids to mask against a virus that poses almost no risk in telling them that the air that they breathe is dangerous is a psychological form of child abuse.”

A few claimed decisions the district were making were not backed by science.

“Think of the bacteria that collects in these masks and are drawn into the lungs — dangerous if masks (are worn) for any length of time,” Beverly Bailey, a grandmother and great grandmother of some Gering students, said. “Now here I did talk to Dr. (Superintendent Nicole) Regan about this, and her comment was, ‘Well, they get mask breaks.’ Mask breaks. I mean, to me that just reinforces what I said that at the time. Mask breaks — so I don’t know if the virus is dormant during that time or …”

Todd Boggs said, “People naturally want to do something to help others. I feel you guys are doing that. But show us the peer reviewed science for these masking decisions. Please abandon this political dogma and start looking at the data that proves masking is injurious to our kids.”

Others mentioned lack of transparency from the board and district administration.

“I want to actually talk more about the lack of transparency, the consistency and the disregard for the concerns of parents recently by the administration as well as the superintendent,” Nicole Smith, a parent of a Gering freshman and sixth grader, said. “…Many parents have reached out to the board members; only one responded. Thank you, Josh (Lacy). This is our board. You represent us; you are elected officials. But it didn’t seem like you really wanted to take the time to give us any time.”

A couple called for Superintendent Nicole Regan to step down and board members recalled.

“You (Nicole Regan) are not a medical doctor. You have no right to take the air away from our children. So if you do it again, I would rather you step down now because you’re only two months in. Two months,” Jill Starke, a grandmother of a Gering student, said. “…I really do think you need to step down now. Also, I believe that every one of you guys (board members) really need to figure out what you’re doing up there.”

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Most wanted to see change.

“When I spoke to that board member, he said that he was really just trying to be someone here to listen, and although I do appreciate that, I want to know that there is more happening than only being listened to — that you not only hear us, but we want you to represent the voters,” Tanya Bosche, a parent of Gering students and wife to a Gering teacher, said. “We want to feel like we can trust you moving forward and that you’re going to take action and uphold the oath to the people and that they will make sure that the policies and procedures are being followed and makes sense, especially in accordance to state statutes.”

Despite comments from the board  that they appreciated the patrons who came to speak and that they were listening to them, it was clear that patrons did not feel heard after the meeting. Multiple patrons piped up during the board comments to say so.

Comments of “You didn’t listen,” and “You didn’t hear anything,” followed board member Mary Winn’s comment: “Our number one objective is student achievement, and we honestly believe that that is best achieved by having students in school. And masking, we believe, is a means of making that possible and avoiding quarantine.”

As board president BJ Peters spoke, reading emails from parents in favor of the districts decisions regarding masks and student health, there was additional side comments being muttered throughout the crowd. Peters asked for it to stop.

“We gave you the common courtesy to sit and listen to your comments,” he said. “We ask for the same respect.”

Another member from the crowd said in response, “Mr. Copsey, sat and snickered and eye-rolled the whole time people were talking, so I’m not sure what it is you’re expecting here.”

It was Copsey’s comments and apparent facial expressions, along with the rest of the board’s reactions to public comments, that seemed to be the deciding factor for Smith, who was one of four members to form the original Gering Parents for Choice group, to pull her kids from the district.

“I believe the line has been reached because they did not listen to anything that was said,” she told the Star-Herald after the meeting. “They sat there, some respectfully, some not — not looking at us. And, they’ve made it very abundantly clear that they’re not going to change their stance. … Copsey already had a big old thing written before he even listened to us, so he had his mind made up.”

In fact, it was during Copsey’s seemingly prepared comments that Smith whispered to Beamon, another of the leaders of the choice group, and said, “We need to go.”

Smith said both during public comment and to the Star-Herald that she was prepared to do just that.

“I’ve checked into neighboring school districts,” she said. “Unfortunately, I just think that that is really stressful on them (her children). And so, we have done lots and lots of research, at least for this year, to see about homeschooling. I’ve filled out the form; I’m ready to pull them tomorrow.”

Following the meeting, Copsey told the Star-Herald that he didn’t think pulling students out of school would be a “satisfying” answer to the problem for these parents.

"Our policies, we’ll find all the same policies. So I’m not sure where they’re looking to pull their kids to,” Copsey said. “…So, I think some of them have found in their conversations with particularly Scottsbluff, anyway, that they’ve got the same guidelines in place that we do. So, I don’t know that they’re finding any satisfaction on that front either.”

Regan said it was ultimately up to the parents.

“What we have going on at Gering Public Schools we’re so proud of in what we’re doing, and it’s just first quarter, so there’s just so many great things coming ahead, as we’re as we’re going day to day, so I hope they will stay but, you know, it is a parent’s choice,” she said.

Smith said parental choice is what she wants — particularly for children’s health.

“It’s not about masks at this point; it’s about our choice as parents to do what’s right for our kids,” she said. “When they (board/administration) quote specific scientific things, we have the same on the other side. There’s just so much out there — it is very hard. It’s very conflicting. It’s very stressful. So we as parents feel that we should have the choice to make that decision for our child.”

For Peters, it comes down to keeping children safe and in school.

“(I) appreciate their concern, but bottom line for me, as a school board president, it comes back to my comments that I made,” he said. “We’ve got two things we need to do, and that’s to educate our kids and do it in the safest way possible. That’s what we’ve been trying to do.

"… I’m glad they came out. I mean, I still stand behind the decision that was made in the last month and decisions that were made over the last 18 months. And I love how we’ve handled this in Gering Public Schools. Unfortunately, they don’t agree with that, but I do. And I think our kids are safer because of it.”

For Smith, this meeting was the last straw.

We wanted to give them a chance, and now we’re going to pursue other avenues,” she said. “We got plans.”

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Reporter

Olivia Wieseler is a reporter with the Star-Herald. She can be reached at 308-632-9051 or by emailing olivia.wieseler@starherald.com.

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