A special meeting of the Scottsbluff School Board will take place Wednesday night, with COVID protocols, and masking, potentially on the agenda.
The panel removed a resolution from their Monday night agenda that would have vested all COVID-related policy-making decisions in the hands of the Superintendent, or someone else designated by the top district administrator, until the end of the school year.
There was much discussion of the plan and mandatory masking for students during public comments with arguments on both sides. Jeff Downey told the Board masks make sense, especially for younger children. “Masking is something easy and hardly inconvenient, that we can all do to really limit the spread of COVID within our elementary schools, and keep children from getting sick,” said Downey. “Why risk a child, teacher or person in our community dying? And it’s not just about children getting sick. This current health policy is not keeping children in school like it’s supposed to.”
Jim Schimek countered that while he had no issue with the thresholds currently used for when masks would be required, people should be respectful of others’ choices, and an across-the-board mandate was wrong. “It is our actions and our right as Americans to choose whether or not to get the vaccine, choose whether or not we wear a mask, to just have that informed decision, and allow us to make our own choices.” On Aug. 30, the district reduced masking thresholds by five percent across all grades, and on Sept. 5, an emerging outbreak with an entire classroom quarantined at Westmoor Elementary prompted a change for PK-5 only, in which a single positive case would prompt the expectation that all kids, staff and teachers of that grade level wear a mask for 14 days. In addition, after school programs and riding the bus would require a mask.
On the subject of the resolution that was removed, former School Board President Bob Kinsey said it was a mistake for the board to have given the previous superintendent sole discretion when it came deciding pandemic-related protocols and processes. “He made decisions that we (the board) had no recourse to, The public had no opportunity to discuss them, or debate them, and I think that was a bad decision,” said Kinsey. “I also think it would be a very tough position. Mr. Dick is a brand new superintendent who has not even had his first evaluation, (and) be put in that position with the pressure that could be exerted on him behind closed doors.”
An update on COVID in the schools was presented, with District Communications Director Melissa Price noting that the number of active cases in the district had dropped from 30 on Friday, the regular reporting date, to 22 as of Monday’s meeting. Price also shared results of a recent survey of staff and parents with a 50 percent response rate that generally found well over half disagreed with an across-the-board mask mandate. The only question in which staff and parents disagreed was whether the District should make mask optional regardless of conditions, with 53% of parents agreeing, while 56% of staff disagreed.
During an exchange between Board member Lori Browning and Dr. Matt Bruner, the Chief Medical Officer at Regional West Medical Center noted we’ve learned much more about the illness, treatment and prevention, with masks just one layer of protection and not necessarily appropriate all the time if there’s no incidence of the disease in the classroom, mask usage shouldn’t be open-ended when put in place and we’ve been teaching children to be fearful.
Local public health officials also discussed the situation, with County Health Director Paulette Schnell noting that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends masking for children in schools across the board.