[ By Kendra Walker ]
With the school district facing a lawsuit over its recently issued mask mandate, the topics of COVID numbers, masks, school staffing and financial resources were top discussion points during the school board meeting on Monday, October 18.
District superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols and the district were served court summons papers earlier this month informing them they were being sued in Gunnison District Court on grounds that the mask mandate constituted an unlawful policy. The plaintiffs are David Justice, a Gunnison community member, Tomas Gomez, parent of two students at Crested Butte Community School, and Michael Spritzer and McKenna Basara, parents of a student at Lake School.
A temporary restraining order to remove the mask mandate was initially denied by judge Steven Patrick, but since then an amended appeal for the temporary restraining order has been resubmitted. Nichols shared with the board that she did not have any update on the amended restraining order, but would continue to communicate updates as they develop. The school district’s attorney has assembled a team to review the complaints and has 21 days to respond.
Several members of the public expressed concern about how the lawsuit will affect the district financially. Nichols said that she is not in a position at this time to share how the school district will be paying for its defense in the lawsuit. “I will answer that at a later time to be sure I have the details correct.”
“It’s disappointing that the school district has to use time and resources to deal with this situation,” said board member Dave Taylor. “However, I absolutely believe it is our right through our systems in this country to exercise your grievances in the court system. I’m disappointed it had to happen. If any of the plaintiffs are listening it would be a good saving on school resources if you might reconsider your position in this matter because I think our money can be spent much better educating children than being involved in lawsuits.”
Board president Courtney Fullmer agreed. “Resources are not just money. Leslie is in charge of 2,000 students and 400 employees. It does cost a lot of resources.”
COVID cases, mask mandate, staffing shortages
“We are still managing in-person school during a pandemic and it’s going well,” said district superintendent Leslie Nichols. “We have kids showing up every day in our schools.”
Nichols shared the district’s positive COVID-19 case data since the beginning of the school year with the school board. Cases dropped from 22 to nine the week after the indoor mask mandate was put in place, followed by three, then two cases. Then in week seven, the positive cases went up to seven. “Which I will share was disappointing,” she said.
Nichols said she does not yet have case counts for week eight, but it will be an odd week of data because of the October Break. According to the district’s online COVID dashboard as of October 19, there were zero positive cases in the last seven days. “Our data is a little inconclusive about positive case counts right now,” said Nichols.
While an exit strategy for masks is still being determined, Nichols says she is working with local public health to monitor several factors to help make those decisions. This includes: positive case counts within the district; positive cases within the community; district staff vaccination rates; local health care system capacity; and school district staffing strength.
“There is broad agreement across the district that in-person school is best. In-person school without masks is better, and that’s where we would like to return,” said Nichols. “There’s not an easy clear answer where I can say, when we hit this then we can take the masks off.”
Nichols noted that the state of Colorado is currently experiencing its highest level of COVID hospitalizations for the entire pandemic, but said the local healthcare system is managing exceptionally well. There were 28 positive cases recorded for Gunnison County this last week.
For vaccinations, the teacher vaccination rate is over 90 percent, and all district staff is over 84 percent. Nichols said she is currently collaborating with public health to analyze student vaccination numbers.
Nichols explained the reasoning for monitoring staffing strength as part of the mask mandate exit strategy. “Because any further stress on our workforce only adds to existing shortages and some staff is mixed with those positive cases. Any time we have staff out sick also adds to the stress of our current workforce.”
Nichols said that there are still concerns around the district’s lack of bus service and full food service at CBCS, along with a need for substitute teachers and educational assistants.
“I think a frustration for me and many in this room is clearer guidance on our exit strategy,” said Taylor, who voted against the mandate in September. “The data does not support kids wearing masks in school and there is that level of hypocrisy where kids are the least vulnerable to COVID by a long, long way. There are 65-plus-year-old adults not wearing masks in our community. If we were to force an age group to have to wear masks it would be people over 65 years old.”
“Schools are little germ factories,” said Fullmer. “Our kids are not getting sick but they’re the ones that are unknowingly spreading it. It’s not necessarily the fear of the children getting sick… We are having trouble having enough staff as it is, that is tricky. We don’t have subs. How are we going to serve 2,000 students if we continue to get sick?”
Taylor addressed the room, which had about 30 attendees and another 30 tuning in via Zoom. “For any and all of you that want your kids out of masks, one way we can mitigate this problem is thinking if you have the ability to be a substitute teacher. It’s a huge help for our district. As far as supporting our educational community if somebody can carve a day every week or two, we need you.”
“I’m a witness to teamwork that we never knew we had or needed,” said Nichols. “Daily our office staff and principals are coordinating how to cover classes where we are short-staffed. Our principals are serving as substitutes…we continue to have a board member who serves as a bus driver…we’re utilizing volunteers to make food service happen here in Crested Butte at a minimal level…It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s gratifying, it’s heartening, it’s also too much. It’s nice to see but difficult to maintain.”