Blaine County public schools will start the year wearing masks on Monday after the trustees voted 4-1 to adopt a suite of COVID-19 safety plans during a special meeting Thursday night.
For now, the decision resolves a political flare-up around the subject of masks that saw more than 150 public comments for and against the requirement, and led the board to cut short an attempt at a vote on the plan after a group of protestors refused to put on masks during a special meeting at the Community Campus Tuesday evening.
As a result, Thursday's rescheduled meeting took place digitally, with significantly reduced public seating at the District Office in Hailey. Board Chairman Keith Roark, Vice Chairman Lara Stone, Trustee Dan Turner and Trustee Gretchen Gorham voted to adopt a proposal drafted by school administrators that, among other things, requires masks; Trustee Amber Larna voted against it.
The plan that will be in effect when the 2021-22 class year starts on Aug. 23 sees staff and students wearing masks indoors during the school day. Masks won’t be required outside and will be optional for students and staff if the state Department of Health and Welfare deems the community’s COVID-19 transmission level “green”—its lowest risk designation. All parents, volunteers, vendors and outside members of the public would have to wear masks to enter school buildings.
The main reason for masking, Superintendent Jim Foudy told the board last week, had to do with quarantine requirements laid out by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If everyone inside is wearing masks, kids won’t need to quarantine following close contacts with a COVID-positive person, he said; without them, they will, per those standards. That’s especially important this year, when twice as many students will be back in the classroom, making social distancing impossible, he said.
“What mitigations are we okay with, knowing that without masks, when we quarantine, we’re quarantining whole classrooms and whole schools,” Foudy said at the time. “With face coverings, it’s only the infected individual.
“If masks are worn, nobody’s quarantined,” he added. “If they’re not worn, everybody’s quarantined. That’s the tradeoff.”
On Thursday, he reiterated the importance of keeping school buildings open in person during the year ahead.
"We're playing catch-up right now," Foudy said, citing stark academic slides exacerbated by remote and hybrid classroom models implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic. "It's imperative that we get kids back in the classroom 100% of the time."
On that, the board--and most parents who participated in the debate--agreed. Otherwise, there was little consensus. Public comments, which were written and filed digitally in advance of this week's meetings, were split down the middle, both Larna and Roark said. The board was of two minds, too.
"We've heard [parents] begging us not to mask their kids," Larna said. "Not your kids--their kids.
"It's really hard for me to put in perspective why we're masking and no one else in the region is."
Foudy, relaying information from a meeting of medical professionals earlier this week, said that Blaine County--like Idaho as a whole--is in the midst of a spike in COVID-19 cases spurred by the delta variant. The difference, he said, is that the impact here is tougher to pin down, where positive tests from out-of-county or out-of-state visitors ping back to their hometowns, not Blaine County. Of the six most recent COVID-19 cases admitted to St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum, five were people from outside Idaho, Foudy said. That means only one registers on Health District charts as a local case, even though six people were sick locally.
"The caution flag was, whatever the numbers are, they're under-representing what's happening here," Foudy said of the meeting.
Both the CDC and American Academy of Pediatricians recommend that schools mandate masks indoors. But requiring them puts the school district once again on the vanguard of COVID-19 protocols in the area; though cities have discussed reinstituting masks to stymie the delta variant, no jurisdiction has returned one to law.
Larna, who represents Carey--the only city in Blaine County not to require masks during previous peaks in the pandemic--cited the lack of current mask requirements among local governments and other entities in her argument against the school district's proposed safety plan.
The remaining four trustees, though, didn't see the reticence of other boards to institute mask requirements as reason to limit how schools would operate.
"You can choose whether or not to got to a store," Stone said. "Our kids cannot choose whether or not they're going to school, and they cannot choose who they go to school with. We have a lot more choices as adults, and as a result, I think it's important that we do everything we can to protect [kids], and to keep them in school."
The policy will be in effect until further notice, Roark said. He plans put it on the agenda of the board's regular meeting in October. "At that point, I hope we'll have sufficient evidence to assess the situation," he said.
A Blaine County school board special meeting to vote on mask mandates lasted just minutes on Tuesday as a group of maskless protestors spurred…
On Thursday, Roark told viewers that he didn't relish the decision to require masks--though, it was clear he didn't approve of the tactics and rhetoric deployed by opponents of mask-wearing earlier this week, either.
"We listen--we do listen," he said. "We just can't agree with all of you...What really bothers me is the rancor that's surrounded this issue. It makes me wonder what'd happened in the 44 years since I brought my family here. This was a community where we cared about each other. We disagreed, but we cared about each other. We were civil. We understood that you could disagree without being disagreeable.
"No matter how you feel about masking, I am not your enemy," he continued. "This board is not your enemy. COVID-19 is your enemy, and if all of us could join together to fight the enemy rather than ourselves, we'd put it to bed."