RF School Board votes 6-1 to makes masks optional
Two meetings fuel tears, angst and compromise
RIVER FALLS – After two motions about the path to take with mask-wearing failed at the Monday, May 24 River Falls School Board meeting, the board called another special session for Thursday, May 27 where after much deliberation, it voted 6-1 to make masks optional beginning June 7 for all PK-12 students and staff.
To say the decision was not taken lightly by board members would be an understatement. It was clear at both meetings that board members have strong, passionate opinions about what’s best for district children. The key to coming to an agreement came down to data and numbers, compiled and presented by Superintendent Jamie Benson.
Before the board deadlocked on the mask question, it voted 6-1 (Mike Thompson dissenting) to reduce the close contact quarantine distance from 6 feet to 3 feet. Board President Stacy Johnson-Myers summed up her support for this change.
“From the mail that I’ve received, it appears as if the quarantining is having a more significant social, emotional and academic impact on our kids (than masks) and I think we would be safe enough to move from 6 feet to 3 feet,” she said.
The large majority of children do not test positive after being identified as a close contact; however, a majority of close contacts are not tested, meaning the true transmission rates aren’t known, Benson said. And, as for masks, although the Pierce County mask advisory order expires June 4, the PCPH and CDC still recommend schools require masks for all unvaccinated people, he said.
Benson’s May 24 recommendation was a “measured and incremental” change, he said: Masks optional for 6-12 and mandatory for K-5, with re-evaluation occurring every two weeks.
“I’m struggling with differentiating between K-5 and 6-12,” board member Todd Schultz said. “I would support optional for all, or could see required for all, but I’m having trouble with that line.”
“Optional does not mean you have to or don’t have to, it’s more of a choice,” Board Vice President Amy Halvorson said. “Summer school is the perfect time to try it. We can pivot at any time.”
Masks do work both ways, Benson said: They protect the people wearing them and other people. While he said he leans more toward making them optional, removing masks is one lost layer of mitigation.
Thompson said he can’t support undermining health experts.
“I want this to be over as much as anybody,” said Thompson. “But we shouldn’t go against experts’ recommendations. We’re deciding we somehow have a better decision than PCPH, CDC, state health departments.”
The motion to make masks mandatory for K-5, optional for 6-12, eventually failed 3-4 with Bob Casey, Cindy Holbrook, Schultz and Thompson voting no.
Schultz then proposed making masks optional for K-12.
“My motivation for something like this is grouping K-12 together, number one, and number two, my preference after doing that would be to go mask optional and assess it over summer school,” Schultz said.
The motion failed 3-3, with Holbrook, Thompson and Johnson-Myers voting no. Board Clerk Alan Tuchtenhagen refused to vote.
“I’m not happy with either of these,” Tuchtenhagen said. “I’m not going to vote on this one so that deadlocks us. So, we’ve got to hammer something out if we’re going to have a policy for summer.
“I would feel safer if there wasn’t such an active vaccine suppression group active in the community. It has affected me in the opposite way than they would have intended.”
The back-and-forth debate on masks and going back to 6 feet close contact distance continued until the board agreed to adjourn with no resolution reached on masks.
The school board met three days later at 3:30 p.m. May 27. For the 291 viewers watching online, the audio was terrible and at many times, unintelligible. Johnson-Myers and Benson made it clear the only reason the board met mid-afternoon on a weekday was board member availability and the desire to put the mask issue to bed before Memorial weekend. They also wanted to notify parents and staff of any summer changes as soon as possible.
“Abnormal time? Yes,” Benson said. “Hidden reasons? No.”
Public comment time began with a woman in an American flag sweater carrying an “Unmask Our Kids” sign asking board members why they’re on the board. She suggested those without children currently in the district could better serve the public on a county board. She warned them that their votes could spell trouble for their school board future.
“We the people are keeping score cards of every government servant in Pierce County,” the woman said. “And rest assured we will not forget which way you vote tonight. We will rally together next election to throw every single servant out of office who violates their oath and trespasses on the rights of the people.”
“Believe this, that all of us have the students’ best interests in mind, including these board members,” Benson said. “I am looking forward to getting back to a time and place when more people can respectfully discuss their differences, community divisiveness can subside and kindness and grace is the norm, even at times of disagreement.”
His slideshow spelled out data and explanations about his masking recommendation, which had changed from three days earlier.
Monday (May 24), the board voted on a compromise, based on Benson’s recommendation: K-5 masks required, but optional grades 6-12, the slide read. “At that time, we anticipated a tough, challenging split board vote; hence, the compromise recommendation.
“The vote failed, along with a separate vote for K-12 optional masks, largely due to Public Health guidance vs. local decisions/opinions. The board chose to reconvene ASAP to not allow this issue to linger.”
His May 27 recommendation to makes masks optional for K-12 had “nothing to do with the (parent) threats at all,” Benson said. He carefully evaluated “both sides of the coin.”
“Public Health and CDC are wise, conservative, knowledgeable, safe, cautious people responsible for controlling a communicable disease,” Benson said via slide. “Extreme measures at critical times to control outbreaks and further spread; life-saving measures, various guidelines, orders, mandates, opinions, conflicting research reports, variety of public opinion, disagreement about science, etc.
“Today, as we view both sides of the coin (balance risks), we see the scale tipped toward developmental/social/emotional best interests of kids vs. pandemic concerns when debating our mask policy moving forward. WE ARE in a different place/time/condition,” Benson’s slide said.
In December 2020, people living within the district averaged 48.7 new cases of COVID per day, Benson said. Pierce County averaged 71 new cases per day. Now, the district averages .57 new cases per day. These numbers are an average over seven days.
“It looks like the curve has been flattened,” Benson said.
Last summer, the district ran summer school successfully amid pandemic concerns, Benson pointed out.
“We did so successfully, which in turn, gave us the confidence to bring PK-6 to school five days per week this entire school year. Now, we’re faced with another decision that WILL influence our decisions for the school year,” Benson said.
He laid out his changed recommendation to optional masks for PK-12 students and staff: _ Support, respect and encourage mask choice _ Layers of mitigation efforts will remain (cohort groups in SS, limit number of hours in SS, smaller class sizes in SS, clean facilities/ sanitization, hygiene and handwashing, fresh air circulation, windows open, ionization, isolation and quarantines continue, stay home when ill and get tested, vaccination numbers will rise) _ As always, the SDRF will monitor and pivot based on in-district COVID cases, number of close contacts, county/community spread, outbreaks, etc.
“We’re not throwing the baby out with the bath water with anything we do going forward,” Benson said. “Whatever is voted on today doesn’t mean it stands forever.”
Schultz called for respect for all board members, regardless of opinions.
“Nobody’s up here because they have a political agenda,” Schultz said. “Everyone who’s on this board was on the board before COVID.”
Halvorson said the board always tries to reach a compromise. She noted more than 3,000 children attend school and more than 500 staff members work for the district.
“So, this is not a one size fits all,” Halvorson said.
Holbrook asked Benson why his recommendation changed from May 24 (when it had been masks required K-5, optional for 6-12).
“I felt the need to illustrate the then and now scenario better,” Benson said. “I had alluded to that earlier but I didn’t expand by actually having data on the screen to show specifics.
“My recommendation, quite frankly, is not swayed by the rude, disrespectful, hammering that some people have been posing recently at all. It has everything, in my mind, to do with the numbers.”
Like Schultz, Benson said, he wants to know the end line, the end goal with COVID numbers that public health would like to see before things return to a more normal place.
“I respect their opinions,” Casey said of public health officials. “I respect their knowledge is greater than mine with a pandemic, but I too have been educated quite a bit on weighing out with impact on student well-being.”
Tuchtenhagen, who had refused to vote on the mask issue May 24, said he did so because he wasn’t comfortable with any of the options presented. However, the expanded data and numbers Benson presented May 27 put his mind more at ease.
“I was very uncomfortable without going through this kind of data and thinking about it some more,” Tuchtenhagen said.
“The disrespectful messages we’ve gotten makes me want to dig my heels in more than ever,” Holbrook said. “It honestly makes it harder for me to dig into things and swing my position.”
But swing her position she did, but not before vocalizing her angst and struggle with this decision.
“I have a huge problem with K-12 because vaccines are not available for all,” Holbrook said. “But there have been some things for me that have changed since Monday.”
She paused to collect herself, as her voice choked up. She wiped tears from her face and continued. For one, she grilled Director of Academic Services Jennifer Peterson about summer school specifics. Once she learned who the teachers were, how communication would be handled and how cohorts and distancing would be used, she felt better, she said.
“For the kids who are going to school, this summer matters,” Holbrook said as her voice broke. “To me, it’s important when going to school, the kids that are going to school have learning recovery needs. They have social/emotional needs. They have transition back to school needs … but they need summer school. And part of leading summer school is using the relationship and meeting the teachers, needing the time. It’s monumentally important.
“I hate the idea of going against Public Health. I hate it. I like AZ Snyder. I like that she’s conservative. I like that she considers our community, the local numbers, and I thinks she’s really, really smart. So, it’s really painful to have the potential to looking against somebody that I know knows a lot more about this than I do.”
Holbrook said she likes that summer school starts June 14, goes for two weeks, then takes a week break, which will allow staff and the board to evaluate how things are going.
Johnson-Myers, who along with Holbrook and Thompson, had voted against making masks optional for K-12, said she had been hopeful Monday for a compromise (making masks mandatory for K-5), and that it’s hard for her to go against Public Health because she’s a rule follower and it’s outside her comfort zone.
“But I think part of what I feel is that I have to have some humility in recognizing that there are others’ opinions …” she said, though the rest of her statement was inaudible.
Ultimately, the board voted 6-1 (Thompson dissenting) to make masks optional beginning June 7 for all staff and students.
Slide courtesy of River Falls School District
Slide courtesy of River Falls School District