Agreeing with Dave…but context matters

Well, that was quite the school board meeting this week.

The Gunnison Watershed School District board meeting packed the Crested Butte Community School library and maxed out the Zoom participation on Monday. There were periods of calm reason from all sides and unfortunate periods of over-fiery unruliness that went over the civility line (the Zoom chat was “interesting”). There’s a difference between passionate disagreement about your middle schooler and acting like your middle schooler who is crashing from a sugar buzz.

The two main discussion topics were putting in a mask requirement after starting the first three weeks of the school year without one and whether the school curriculum is centered around the boogey man of critical race theory (it’s not). We’ll focus on masks.

First off, I admit I found it somewhat ironic that most of those advocating or ultimately voting for the mask mandate chose not to wear masks during the meeting about implementing a mask mandate. No one on the school board, the superintendent and most of the administration at the meeting sported a mask Monday night. I sort of understand the reasoning that wearing a mask might have given the impression that a mask requirement was a done deal, but the irony was still there. It seemed a political move over one based in guidance. Like most people, I don’t like wearing a facemask but threw one on Monday and was one of maybe five. Fun times.

The thing I found most lacking at the meeting was context from all sides.

The discussion seemed to be centered on protecting kids from illness, keeping the positive COVID test numbers down among students, or standing up for freedom of choice and parental control.

In the narrow context of requiring kids to wear masks to keep the number of COVID cases among the students down, I would not disagree with school board member Dave Taylor and the in-person crowd. In that single bubble of context, a mask requirement is probably not the best choice given the small chance of serious illness from the virus among young people and the benefits of learning and socialization when a full face is visible.

But life isn’t just one black-and-white bubble. Unfortunately, to me, the big picture context was not made clear in the discussion. The community school is part of the broader community. Students, especially those in a small town, mingle not just with their friends, but with the broad population. Unlike professional sports teams in the playoffs, they are not isolated in a bubble.

Dave spoke of the small risk of students dying or getting hospitalized from COVID. Compared to older people that is true. Dave said he is stressed all the time about his 90-year-old father because he “is ripe to perish” from COVID at his age. Fair. Chances are Dave’s dad won’t come into contact with a fifth grader who is asymptomatic but has the virus that he might pass on unknowingly. But given the greater transmission ability of the Delta variant, Dave could get infected because he generously spends part of his time as a school bus driver. If Dave were to unknowingly pick up the virus from a kid with a runny nose and then go visit someone in the super at-risk category, would it not be tragic if the at-risk person caught COVID from three degrees of separation? And that’s the intertwining of community. It’s not about just one bubble.

Our schools are part of the entire community. They are also obvious breeding grounds for any virus, especially when transmission is not at least somewhat muted, say through the wearing of masks. Kids are not going to stay 6 feet apart from one another 24 hours a day. As any teacher knows, germs spread fast and any school is basically a petri dish. I’ve talked to local teachers who say last year was the best in terms of not getting sick at all and they credit facemasks in part for that success. As any parent knows with the common cold or flu, the petri dish spreads easily from the classroom to the home, and then to the general community through businesses or events around town. If a kid comes down with a mild case of COVID and takes it home, the family essentially has to quarantine and that may result in parents and then their co-workers perhaps having to quarantine. That impacts the entire community.

I again agree with Dave (I know, hard to believe) when he said the most important thing the school district can do is keep the schools open for in-person learning. That is extremely important for our local kids. And that happened last year when a bunch of other schools in Colorado and across the country shut their doors. Superintendent Leslie Nichols made it clear that the school district could have to close part or all of the school due to staff absences. She said that is “real and is an important reason for the mask mandate.”

My kids have graduated from CBCS but as a parent, my top concern would be that teachers and school staff contract the virus, (and that can happen whether vaccinated or not), and the school is not able to stay open. Is that the end result anyone wants?

The equation that successfully worked to keep students in the physical classrooms in both Crested Butte and Gunnison was in place last year. Part of that equation included masks.

The number of positive coronavirus cases is going up in the schools and in the community. Dang. As much as I, and everyone I know, want to be done with this pandemic cluster— the reality of the big picture is that we are not out of the COVID woods just yet. Freedom entails making decisions not just for a narrow, single bubble but for the overall good that ultimately benefits all of us in the long run. The school board made a decision Monday to try and keep the kids in the classroom and all members of the valley safe from COVID. That’s a decision that benefits the entire community.

—Mark Reaman

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