Steamboat School Board favors masks being optional for all students
The board did not vote but gave guidance to Superintendent Brad Meeks, with the final decision anticipated to come by next week
The Steamboat Springs School Board signaled it favored masks being optional for students in the district ahead of the first day of school in two weeks.
The board did not vote on the matter but instead gave guidance to Superintendent Brad Meeks. A final decision from the district is anticipated next week.
In the much-anticipated discussion Monday night, three of the four board members at the meeting said they wanted to start the school year without masks, saying that position was based on guidance from local and state health officials that stops short of mandating masks.
“With no mandate in place from them, I feel like it is difficult for me to say personally that I am going to overrule that and require masks,” said Katy Lee, who served as acting president of the board for the meeting in the absence of Board President Kelly Latterman.
Board member Chresta Brinkman said she favored requiring masks for those who were younger than 11, as they do not have the option to get the vaccine yet.
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All unvaccinated district staff are required to wear a mask while in school. The district has also opted into a program that would allow for students and staff to receive frequent testing for COVID-19, whether they are vaccinated or not.
The overwhelming sentiment from board members and public health officials was to prioritize ensuring students were in school full time, with masks being one potential aspect of a layered mitigation approach laid out by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Though the year will start without masks, the board emphasized it would add a masking requirement if prevalence of the virus started leading to interruptions for students in the classroom, though what level of cases would trigger a return of masks was not specified.
“If it does look like we are not going to have those children’s butts in those seats, we will mask,” said board member Kim Brack. “Given the choice between masking or not being in school, I am happy to mandate a mask, because I want those kids in school.”
The district will still have various mitigation measures in place that were employed last year, such as improved ventilation, using separate entrances for different grades and staggering lunch, recess and dismissal times, among other precautions.
While there is no plan for hybrid classrooms like last year at this point, the district is maintaining the Edgenuity online learning platform for students who choose to move to remote learning.
Masks will be required on school buses for students and drivers regardless of vaccination status like last year due to an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention requiring masks on public transportation.
Several people spoke during public comment saying the board should not require masks for students. Some questioned the effectiveness of masks while others stressed that wearing masks is a burden that harms students’ mental and social health.
Many told board members they should follow other districts in the area and allow parents to choose whether their children wear a mask to school.
“Bums in seats is not learning if they have masks on, especially kindergartners,” said Lauren Patton during public comment. “Please hear our voices and leave it up to parents.”
Patton said she would pull her daughter from the district if masks were mandated for students.
Chris Waters, a father of two in the district, said his children had less enthusiasm for going to school when they were required to wear a mask last year.
“Masks should be a parent’s or kid’s choice based on their individual health situation, risk assessment and personal choice,” Waters said.
The lone parent to speak in support of masks was Meghan Hanson-Peters, who has a third-grader in the district. Also a teacher in the district, Hanson-Peters said she felt last year went as well as it did because the district followed guidelines.
“I am here to advocate for tonight’s unpopular opinion that we start off with all (kindergarten to 12th-grade students) in masks and put safety first,” Hanson-Peters said, adding that she hoped eventually they wouldn’t be needed. “In my small social circles, most people are like ‘Last year went well; they will probably start the year in masks.’”
Part of board members’ preference for not requiring masks is because quarantine protocol for the 2021-22 school year is drastically different than last year. The changes are meant to keep students in school, and Routt County Public Health Director Roberta Smith said the county’s vaccination rate above 70% means quarantines are less stringent locally.
For example, Smith said in the event of a routine case of COVID-19 in an elementary school classroom of unvaccinated students, only the student with the virus would need to quarantine. This changes if the class is physical education or music, or if a student had closer contact than a typical classroom exposure.
Meeks emphasized that having a high vaccination rate among staff and students eligible for the vaccine could help limit the impact of quarantines this year as well. Last year, more than 60 quarantines sent nearly 1,600 students and 160 staff home.
Meeks said he didn’t know for sure what the vaccination rate was among eligible students and staff in the district but speculated that it was higher than the 70% requirement.
“I am hearing the emotion in our parents that have commented tonight, I hear that you love your kids, and you want them to have a good experience,” said board member Lara Craig. “I do too, and other parents do, too, even if there is an opposite opinion.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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