SOS group shows up to “Support Our Schools” at GWSD meeting

“These lawsuits are obstructing our school leaders from focusing on our real and immediate needs”

[ By Kendra Walker ]

Contentious topics, ample public comment and blue t-shirts touting support for the Gunnison Watershed School District continues to be the new normal at school board meetings, and this week was no exception. During the December 13 meeting, representatives of the recently formed group SOS (Support Our Schools) were given time to speak to express their support for the school district, the school board and superintendent Dr. Leslie Nichols. Their focus was speaking against the lawsuit that has been initiated by four community members against the district’s mask mandate.

“We formed SOS, Support Our Schools, to be a valley and county-wide group representing all backgrounds, races and cultures,” said GWSD parent Jennifer Barvitski. “SOS formed after many of us were alarmed when outsiders in a small but loud minority began raising myriad attacks against our board. Our superintendent, our teachers and yes, even our children. We must not let any national agendas attempt to disrupt or shape the Gunnison Watershed School District. These lawsuits are obstructing our school leaders from focusing on our real and immediate needs of labor shortages, overcrowding, funding, school building improvements and much, much more. These frivolous lawsuits are wasting our school time, money and energy. That results in hurting our school staff, our teachers and our children, our most prized possessions and our future. There are other and more appropriate ways to express concerns that do not involve lawsuits in such upheaval to our schools and community.”

“I’m very upset to see a small but vocal group causing distraction and trying to divide our community,” said her husband, Bill Barvitski. “Our teachers, staff, principles and superintendent are not our enemy, they are us, they are our neighbors, friends and family.”

Kristi Hargrove explained that the SOS members represent “a wide cross-section of the community, including north, south valley residents, long-time locals and those new to the community, Republicans, Democrats, Independents, parents, grandparents and community members who care about our kids. Over 1,000 people have spoken in support of our group.”

She continued, “We are united first and foremost in supporting our schools and the kids in this community…SOS is speaking as one voice tonight on behalf of hundreds. We chose to speak with one voice to ensure you as a board have time to address the immediate challenges, including staffing, funding and facilities that if not addressed threaten the quality of our education and success of our students.”

Later on in the meeting Nichols updated the board on the district’s mask mandate and the lawsuit against it. On December 13, judge Steven Patrick ruled that an amended complaint, the plaintiffs’ argument for why the mask mandate should not be allowed, will be the complaint moving forward and the school district has until January 3 to respond.

Nichols also clarified how the lawsuit is being financed through insurance. “We do have a $5,000 deductible, and our insurance company is covering the cost of the litigation after that.” Nichols estimated that the preliminary first bill is about $8,000.

“What’s harder to measure is time in managing all the communication in what is going on,” she said. “That time I can’t spend on our facilities’ needs or our workforce shortages or even COVID management. That’s the harder to measure piece when trying to just put a price tag on that.”

“Those expenses, the internal expenses of your time and Tia’s (Mills, the district’s business manager) time and other people’s time, those are not covered by insurance,” added board president Tyler Martineau.

During opportunities for public comment throughout the evening, no one spoke against the mask mandate.

Nichols also presented the district’s mask exit strategy, which was shared with the community at the beginning of this month. “We have had our requirement in effect for 11 weeks now including breaks, and here’s why. We know that in-person school with robust attendance rooted in strong relationships remains our goal and getting back to school without masks has always been important. We only put them back on because of the increase in behavior of the virus was alarming a few weeks into the school,” said Nichols.

The district will monitor metrics that look at the prevalence of COVID in the community, as well as vaccination rates and access. Once four of the six metrics are met, the district will return to masks being recommended for those not yet vaccinated, recommended for three days following recovery from illness, welcome for all, and required on school district transportation.

The metrics include:
• At or below an average of seven COVID cases per week among GWSD staff and students for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by GWSD.
• At or below an average of 17 COVID cases per week (approx. 100 per 100,000) among residents for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• At or below 10 percent community positivity rate for three weeks starting January 2022 as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• At or above 80 percent vaccination rate of all GWSD staff as reported by Gunnison County Public Health. Nichols noted that this has been met as the staff reached 84 percent in September.
• At or above 80 percent community vaccination rate among those eligible as reported by Gunnison County Public Health.
• Access to vaccines for 5-year-olds and older for eight weeks. Vaccines for 5-11-year-olds became available on November 4, and this metric will be met on December 30.

A dashboard monitoring the metrics will be available on the district’s website by the return from the holiday break on January 3, said Nichols.

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