All students now must mask

Ron Burtz
While several board members acknowledged they would make people angry no matter what path they chose, the Custer School District Board of Education voted to mandate the wearing of masks in all three district schools for two weeks in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 among the students and staff. The decision came at the end of a two-hour special meeting Thursday evening at the Custer High School Theater before a vocal audience of over 35 parents and teachers. 
It was the third meeting in October for the school board. Following the regular monthly meeting on the 12th, the board held an emergency meeting the following Wednesday to address a spike in cases in the jr./sr. high at which it decided to close all schools the next day in order to buy time to decide how to proceed. On Saturday morning, Oct. 17, the board met again in a special meeting at which it was decided to mandate masks for the next two weeks for the jr./sr. high only. 
That measure was taken because several positive COVID cases in the student body and evidence of student-to-student spread of the virus led to sending 60 healthy students home because they had been in close contact with the infected students. (Close contact has been defined as being unmasked and within six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes.)
In that meeting, board members were told that if masks were made mandatory those “close contact” students would be allowed to come back to school and would not have to quarantine for 10 days. The two-week mask mandate was adopted unanimously by the school board as a stopgap measure to keep students in school and slow the rate of transmission. 
As of Thursday, that two-week window had closed and a rise in cases in the district’s other two schools prompted the second special meeting of the month.
Supt. Mark Naugle said he and the district’s nursing staff, in consultation with Dr. Lisa Brown, recommended moving all schools to Category 2 of the district’s COVID Operational Plan for the following two weeks. 
Naugle said the reason for the recommendation was that, in addition to the eight previous cases in the jr./sr. high, there had been five positive cases at Custer Elementary School (CES) with 41 close contacts identified and four positives at Hermosa School with 22 close contacts. One close contact at Hermosa had contracted the virus, which was a staff-to-staff transmission, and school was closed that day in Hermosa awaiting the board’s decision. 
Naugle said 13 percent of the close contacts at the jr./sr. high had contracted the virus, but that no new cases had been identified at the jr./sr. high that had not been exposed prior to the mask rule. 
The first item on the meeting agenda was the open forum time during which a number of parents and staff members addressed the board with regard to the question at hand. 
One of the first to speak was parent Dan Swanson who referenced the Centers for Disease Control guidelines and doctors Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx and stated, “I strongly recommend keeping the mask policy until we get cases way down.”
On the other side of the mask argument was CES paraprofessional Liz Stender. who addressed the practice of quarantining students identified as close contacts. 
“Quarantine, I think, is a complete detriment to their learning,” said Stender. “Kids need to be in school so they can learn properly.”
Referencing a publication which questioned the safety of widespread use of masks, Stender listed several potential negative consequences of mask wearing, including increased carbon dioxide levels, lower oxygen intake and other risk factors.
Danny Pritchard, who has both an 8-year-old and a 5-year-old at CES, said his children have been out of school almost more than they have been in the classroom this fall. He also had concerns about the wearing of masks by both elementary students and their teachers. 
He said young children are constantly putting on and taking off masks at school, which he said makes “the point of trying to make a kid wear a mask...practically moot.” Pritchard said he believes hand washing is the most important key to stopping the spread of infection. 
He said his children had a difficult time understanding teachers when they wore masks and said he was concerned about young children’s ability to read the subtlety of facial expressions when masks are worn by staff.
Dr. Brown spoke several times in response to statements and questions from the audience and board members. Acknowledging there is “no perfect answer” to the situation, she defended the use of masks, stating that if an infected person coughs or sneezes “a huge portion of droplets will be caught by the mask.” She said she believes there is a correlation between the dose of the virus a person receives and how sick one gets with it.
Responding to a parent questioning how long the mask mandate might be in place, Dr. Brown responded, “I don’t have that answer. I think masking is definitely an improvement over not masking.” 
Over the next hour, questions and comments from audience members and the school board dealt with numerous issues related to the recommendation. One parent asked if a child who has asthma would be required to wear a mask and was told that such a child could receive a medical exemption and would be socially distanced from other children. 
Board member Jeff Prior inquired whether the mask mandate could be avoided by taking the temperature of every student daily. Dr. Brown said that has been tried in other places, but has not been effective. 
When asked his opinion about the previous mask mandate at the jr./sr. high, Principal Tobey Cass said, while he is not personally a proponent of masks, the most recent action did allow 60 students to be in school the past two weeks rather than quarantining at home. 
“It really cut down on the number of kids we had to send home in addition to those five positive cases,” said Cass. “They don’t leave them on 100 percent of the time, but it doesn’t take much urging to get them to put them on. I hate wearing them, too, but I’ll do what I have to do to keep the kids in school.”
Though there was considerable difference of opinion within the room, the one point of agreement appeared to be the importance of keeping healthy students in school. 
The frustration of some board members with the situation could be seen in several statements made. 
Alleging that “some who were infected were avid mask wearers,” Bob Morgan asked, “Are we trying to prevent the unpreventable?” 
Prior recalled that the initial school shutdown in the spring was for “two weeks to slow the spread” of the virus and stated, “This has become a bogeyman that’s not going away.” He later asked what would be the metric for lifting the mask requirement. 
Larry Baker said it should be the parents’ responsibility to tell their children to wear masks or not. 
However, it was board member Travis Hartshorn who near the end of the meeting identified the ultimate catch-22 the board was facing.
“If we put masks on, we make teachers and parents mad,” said Hartshorn. “If we don’t put masks on, we make teachers and parents mad. I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
At length, board president Heather Grace called for a motion to approve the recommendation of the superintendent, which was made by Michelle Lehman and seconded by Jeff Barnes. Under the terms of the motion, those who were considered close contacts of infected persons could stay in school as long as they did not exhibit symptoms. This would mean elementary students who had been sent home could return. 
As discussion continued, the idea was floated to put together a subcommittee of the board to further study the situation and be prepared with a recommendation on how to proceed once the two weeks under the new rule were completed. 
Lehman amended her motion to include the formation of the committee and presented the following motion: To take all three buildings in the district to Category 2 of the COVID Operational Plan for two weeks from Nov. 2 to 12, which would require that all students and staff wear masks during the school day. In addition, the board moved to create a committee to look at other options and put together a plan for what to do at the end of the two weeks. 
The motion carried with only Baker voting no. The subcommittee was organized consisting of Naugle, Morgan, Barnes and Lehman. The November meeting is set for the Monday prior to the expiration of the new rules, so a decision whether or not to continue the mask requirement should be made at that meeting. 
Following the meeting at least one parent expressed his intentions in response to the board’s decision. 
Pritchard said “My kids will be home schooling for at least two weeks.”

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