RE1J school district issues indoor mask mandate

Passionate parents show up for board meeting

[ By Kendra Walker ]

After more than three contentious hours of public comment and board discussion on Monday night, the Gunnison Watershed School District school board voted 3-1 to move forward with a universal Pre-K-12 mask mandate inside all GWSD buildings.

All staff, students, visitors and spectators will be required to mask at all times indoors and the mask mandate does not apply outside. Masks on district transportation will continue. As the only indoor fall sport participants, volleyball athletes will mask on the bench but not while on the court.

The district started off the school year encouraging both vaccinations for those eligible and masking among students and staff, but not requiring either.

Based on positive COVID-19 cases steadily rising this month both within the school district and the Gunnison Valley community, and in collaboration with Gunnison County Public Health director Joni Reynolds and by updated guidance from the CDPHE, superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols made the recommendation to the school board that a mask mandate be initiated.

Now into the fourth week of the school year, the district has reached 41 positive cases, a steady increase from eight the first week, 10 cases the second and 22 at the end of last week. Positive cases trend toward younger students in elementary and middle school. “That shift is not unexpected due to vaccinations available for students who are 12 and over,” said Nichols.

Looking at positive cases amongst the greater community, there have been 84 positive cases so far this month and if the trend continues, the county could reach over 350 cases by the end of September.

Additionally, on September 10, the CDPHE updated guidance that school districts implement mask requirements for all individuals entering K-12 schools in Colorado, regardless of vaccination status or level of community transmission.

Nichols also reiterated the risk reduction tools already in place across the district: vaccination, ventilation, virus monitoring, hand washing, physical distancing and contact reduction, cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting.

“Vaccination and ventilation remain our most important tools to beat this virus. Staying home when sick and following quarantine guidance if exposed to a positive case are also important, and masking provides one more important layer of risk reduction,” she said.

Nichols noted a new piece of virus monitoring includes elective rapid antigen tests that are being sent once a week for staff and students to be tested in order to catch cases earlier.

She also said 90 percent of all teachers are vaccinated, and 84 percent of all GWSD staff is vaccinated. “I’m pleased with those numbers, I hope they continue to climb,” she said. The district also offers on-campus vaccine clinics for staff and students who wish to get vaccinated. The next clinics take place this Friday, September 17 at CBCS, GHS and GCS.

“We recognize that in-person learning rooted in strong relationships is essential, and relationships are stronger when we are not masked,” said Nichols. We will monitor data closely to determine our exit from this mask mandate, and for now, it is essential that we do all we can to change the trend of positive cases by masking up inside our buildings.”

Between the large, vocal crowd that filled the Crested Butte Community School library and 100+ viewers who tuned in via Zoom, the discussion on Monday night came with much controversy and passion from parents both in support and against the mask mandate recommendation. The Zoom meeting was maxed out at 100 attendees, but the comments section was flooded with debate and at times, harsh language back and forth between people in disagreement.

Against
Board treasurer Dave Taylor voiced his disagreement with issuing a mask mandate and spoke of the small risk of students dying or getting hospitalized from COVID. He cited CDC numbers that showed .02 percent of kids between age 5 and 14 have died from COVID.
“While every one of these deaths is tragic it is a very, very small number of school-aged kids between 5 and 14… Hopefully that eases some of the concern you have about the severity of this illness. I agree with Dr. Nichols that the most important thing we can do in this school district is to keep our schools open for in-person learning.”

During public comment, many parents asked the board to let the parents decide for their children and expressed their concern around the mental health issues that their kids would face with wearing masks all day. One man asked Nichols to resign from her position.
Jeff Ingall weighed in, “The rational that’s been offered here tonight is loose at best. There was no discussion about the impacts and impediments to learning, no discussion about the mental health of our kids wearing masks all day long… Do more research. Don’t punish our kids to wearing masks.”

“Our children trust us to make decisions based on their best interest,” said Molly Sloan. “I really hope you keep them voluntary and for the parents to decide.”

“Thank you for starting off the school year like you did. I am so grateful because it shows me that you’re trying,” said Jenny Lain, expressing appreciation for the district’s mask optional approach. “Masks increase all these health issues…If we can come to a compromise I feel like that would be nice. Let the kids put the mask under their nose so they can breathe the fresh air. Let them keep them below their nose.”

“When in the hell did it become unacceptable for kids to get sick?” said Tomas Gomez. “If you pass this mandate I will not comply. I will not allow my kids to do this.”

In support
The people who expressed their support for the mask mandate all spoke over Zoom.

“The entire staff has worked tirelessly and endlessly to keep our kids safe and in school all of last year,” said Cathie Pagano, noting that her daughter has been home for two weeks due to possibly having COVID. “I fully support Leslie’s recommendation that the mask mandate be in place.”

Eric Burns said his children have adapted to wearing masks and demonstrated a level of willingness to protect those around them. “Masks not only serve to protect our children but the larger community,” he said. “Long-haul symptoms are real and they do not exclude kids. This impact may not kill them but has serious impacts on their health, both physical and mental.”

Brian Pugh expressed his support for the mandate and noted the current worker shortage in the valley. “It’s not about making everyone happy, it’s about doing the right thing. Kids do transmit to vulnerable folks who can’t get vaccinated. If we have an outbreak, and it’s very likely if we continue on this reckless path…what happens when the schools are shut down and parents can’t go to work?”

“I’ve been greatly saddened by what I’ve heard tonight,” said Darcie Perkins. “The chasm in our community is so deep…and I think that stems from a rigidity in our thinking on both sides… Whether you believe in masks or not, in COVID or not, or in vaccines or not – we as adults are missing the point and the opportunity. We can be showing our children by practicing compassion and building our community instead of focusing on ourselves and our own selfish interests. Teach our kids that taking care of each other brings them happiness and mental health. I believe that the mask mandate is doing that…we are taking care of each other and that will teach our children how to find long term happiness.”

”I feel strongly it’s in the best interest of everyone’s mental health for children to be in school,” said Laurie Boscaro. “I believe we run this risk of being forced into online learning if we continue without this mask mandate. I think it’s important for us to think beyond the implications for our children contracting COVID. We need to think about who they return home to. We need to think about those with cancer, pregnant moms, the elderly, those that are immune compromised.

She also addressed the negative comments, “I’d like to remind Ugly Betty (Zoom user) and the rest of you who are online and those of you that are there in person, our kids are watching. We don’t have to agree with each other but let’s be kind to one another. We have an opportunity right now to engage in civil discourse and model that for our children.”

Decision
Nichols addressed the room, saying, “The actions of the school district have been made collaboratively with the school board, collaboratively with our leadership – principals, vice principals, directors – leadership across the Gunnison Valley, including especially public health and to date we have not had controversy surrounding the guidance decisions that we have made in that manner…I’m so grateful to every one of you for being here in person and for all 100 of the people on Zoom…”

She continued, “My recommendation was decided upon after unbelievable work to arrive at that recommendation. This issue has become quite important and contentious to this community and I don’t shy away from that. I respect and embrace how important this has become.”
“This decision is really not a question of personal freedom and individual parent decisions for their children…” said board member Anne Brookhart, who was then interrupted by loud outcries from the crowd.

“Did we listen to you respectfully?” said vice president LeeAnn Mick. “You had the opportunity for public comment…It’s not appropriate for you to comment at this time. We have listened to you.”

“Anne deserves the respect as do all the other board members,” said Taylor.

Brookhart continued, “This decision is about loving our neighbors and honoring human life…The data suggests the need for additional protection, this decision will help to keep our children safe. This next step is simply a return to what was successful last year… Think of the success of last year.”

Though against issuing a mask mandate, Taylor expressed his respect and support for Nichols. “I wish we could all be more civil when discussing these types of issues. Dr. Nichols is the driving force for getting us through COVID last year. She carried the heavy load of organizing safety protocols. She was fantastic in keeping Gunnison Watershed Schools open all year when other schools were closed. I am grateful for that effort. On this particular issue Dr. Nichols and I may disagree. I am going to give Dr. Nichols and the school all the support they need to support the mission of getting through COVID and getting our kids out of masks.”

“Ultimately for me it has to come down to local, it comes down to our public health director and our school superintendent,” said board member Tyler Martineau to the crowd. “That doesn’t mean that your concerns aren’t valid. We’re going to do what we can to get those masks off.”

“We want our kids to be safe, our community has always valued the safety of our children and I will always value the safety of your children,” said board member LeeAnn Mick. “It’s a tough decision to make. I appreciate every one of you for coming here. If there is something that can be done that will keep all of our children safe that’s what I’m in favor of.”

Board president Courtney Fullmer was not in attendance. The board voted 3-1, with Taylor voting against, in favor of issuing the mask mandate effective immediately.

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