Masks were the top item of discussion at the Scottsbluff Public Schools Board of Education meeting Monday night.
Over an hour of the meeting was used to discuss the rising cases of the Delta variant in the district, the desire to keep students in school and how to safely achieve that goal. Several district patrons offered public comment in addition to guest speakers Regional West Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matthew Bruner, Panhandle Public Health Department Director Kim Engel and Scotts Bluff County Public Health Director Paulette Schnell.
Originally, the meeting agenda included a resolution to delegate emergency powers to the superintendent, specifically regarding COVID-19 procedures. However, the item was removed from the agenda by a unanimous vote of the board at the start of the meeting. Despite it being removed, the board mentioned there is still potential for the resolution to be put on the agenda of a future meeting.
The removal of the item did not deter conversation regarding current COVID-19 protocols and potential changes, though. During the public comment period, multiple viewpoints on the masking question were shared.
Jeff Downey began the comments with discussing why masking makes sense to protect those who are unvaccinated, specifically students aged 12 and under.
“I thought it was completely unacceptable last year that so many school districts around this country thought that avoiding the risks of this disease were worth keeping children home, yet again, in front of screens,” he said. “But there’s a difference between embracing risk and recklessness, and luckily, with this particular question we’re faced with tonight — the question of whether or not to require masks in order to protect children under 12, who haven’t yet had the chance to be vaccinated — it’s simple. … Masking is something easy and hardly inconvenient that we can all do to really limit the spread of COVID within our elementary schools and keep children from getting sick.”
Downey was followed by multiple opponents of a mask mandate, one of which was Heather Neu, an early childhood educator and parent of a student. Neu said that in her experience, the masks really made learning difficult at those young ages when seeing how mouths formed works and facial expressions relayed emotions are crucial in the students’ development.
“Thinking about their social and emotional growth, where the beginning of that super important … early childhood state, I saw it last year. (I was) really concerned about that, when we’re telling them to look at each other and see their friends and how they’re feeling, and they can’t see their faces. That was very, very difficult,” Neu said. “Also, the beginning of that reading process and math both, but reading — especially teaching letters and sounds, teaching them how to read words, all those things — and them not being able to see my mouth and me not being able to see theirs, it’s just very difficult.”
Other commenters said they just want the board to respect the choices of the parents, especially when those choices have been made known statistically in the district’s latest survey on the school’s Safe Return to School plan, which showed that the majority of parent respondents disagreed with sentiments regarding a mask mandate: about 60% disagreed or strongly disagreed with requiring masks for students and staff Pre-K through 12, as well as just for Pre-K through 6. Survey respondents reflected about 50% of district households, according to communications director Melissa Price.
That sentiment was brought to the comment stand by Jim Schimek, as well as Jennifer Kinsey. Schimek said that ultimately, these kinds of decisions need to be up to the parents.
“At what point do we decide to allow the (governing) body to violate our parental right of our choice to mask or not mask?” he said. “I teach my kids to be respectful if somebody’s wearing a mask? I teach them the risk. At what point do we decide that you know better for what my kids do without giving the kids the opportunity to learn …?”
Kinsey said the board is there to represent the district, which she felt was not happening with the potential proposal of a mask mandate.
“You guys are elected to represent the district, and when the majority of the district opposes having a massive mandate, then you guys should decide in that favor,” she said. “Decisions made by the board that aren’t reflective of what the majority is wanting shows an inability to properly do that.”
It was a similar point that Robert Kinsey, a former school board member and board president, said he wanted to make in regard to the resolution that had been removed from the agenda. He said the resolution took away the public’s ability to be involved in decisions about their children’s education and growth.
“Being the board president interacting with the superintendent on a regular basis during the COVID epidemic, I found that many decisions were being made that were not supported by the community,” he said. “… And at that point, I decided that we should not have ever abdicated our responsibility as a board in the legislative branch of government to the executive branch of government, because he (the superintendent) made decisions that we had no recourse to. The public had no opportunity to discuss or debate them, and I think that that was a bad decision.”
Following a brief interlude of other board business, including passing the 2021-22 budget at $71,743,641 — a 21% increase from last year’s due to ESSERS funding — and the property tax rate of about 1.3%, a COVID-19 update was given, with special guest speakers.
Bruner began by giving his advice on balancing the two sides of the issue, stating that masks are only necessary if there is a positive case or an individual is sick. Board member Lori Browning followed with multiple questions, particularly comparing what he said about masking at this time last year to this year.
“How is it different for you to say pre-K through 5 a year ago, when there were not as many cases, ‘Yes, you mask up. Let’s get these kids masked,’” she said. “And now there’s a heck of a lot more cases in just our district than there were a year ago, and you’re saying, ‘Ehhh.’”
Bruner responded that there is more information on how to treat COVID-19 and how to prevent it, so masks aren’t the “end-all-be-all” like they were last year. He said it’s time to start teaching students more about risk and less about fear.
“(The best thing is) to not be afraid of things,” he said. “So, we are teaching them to be afraid of things; we taught everybody to run away from this, and now we need to teach them how to … be respectful. Let’s wear masks when we’re sick. Let’s not to go to school when we’re sick. … Teaching everybody to run and hide with a mask on doesn’t necessarily help them at all.”
The COVID-19 and masks discussion ended with data shared by Schnell and Engel — the same data given during earlier briefings by Panhandle Public Health District, which showed rising cases in the Panhandle, including among children. Engel stressed the importance of vaccinations among those who can receive it, and Schnell made a recommendation for masking, based on recommendations from the CDC.
“CDC recommends masking for all ages,” Schnell said. “I know that there’s different things you need to look out for a community to consider that, but that is the recommendation and … we saw at work last year, but that was before the Delta, which is more contagious, so that would be our recommendation.”
There will be a special Board of Education meeting held on Wednesday, Sept. 15, at 7 p.m. to address the mask question after the board heard information and comments that were presented Monday night.