To mask or not to mask remains a personal choice at Mesa Public Schools – with some notable new exceptions laid out at a heated meeting last week.
Even after they were opened to the general public to attend in person, over the past few months only a handful of people typically attended Governing Board meetings.
Not so last week.
Dozens crammed the meeting room, with others waiting in the lobby.
What almost everyone wanted to talk about: masks.
The issue of mandated face coverings accelerated to hot button status.
Just before the 2021-22 school year began, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law forbidding districts from requiring students and staff to wear masks.
A recent court ruling said that law does not begin until Sept. 29, prompting districts in Tempe, Phoenix and elsewhere to require masks.
MPS started the school year by recommending masks. The largest district in the state did not change its general guidelines at Tuesday night’s board meeting, though several minor adjustments enraged the anti-maskers who attended.
According to a presentation by Associate Superintendent Holly Williams, students will continue to have the option of wearing masks but “we will require masks on buses.”
This, she noted, is a federal requirement “that just became known to us.”
And, instead of a class being quarantined (nine classes or programs are currently studying at home), when several students in a class report being COVID-19 positive, those classes will be required to wear masks for 10 days “as a mitigation measure.”
Board member Lara Ellingson asked if that can be implemented after Sept. 29, when a state law banning mask mandates in schools is scheduled to begin.
“We made a commitment that we are following the law … we don’t know exactly what will happen after Sept. 29,” Superintendent Andi Fourlis said.
MPS began the school year without an active “COVID dashboard” tracking statistics. But MPS will restart the dashboard as soon as this week.
According to Williams, 568 students and 94 teachers/staff tested positive for COVID-19 in the first three weeks of school.
Friday’s data shows 264 active student cases with 59 reported COVID cases among teachers/staff. Six classes or programs are “quarantined,” meaning they are learning from home for around 10 days.
To view the dashboard: datastudio.google.com/.../ec542.../page/p_485jms4tmc
Thirty people signed up to speak during the “public comments” section, which is at the end of meetings.
The board doubled the total speaking time, from 15 to 30 minutes, but reduced the individual time from 3 minutes to 1 minute.
This infuriated one speaker.
“After sitting out there for three hours and watching you grandstand and then we get 60 seconds of scrap, I find this whole board appalling,” Chris Hamlet complained.
Of the 35 speakers, slightly more than half were passionately against masks, with the others pleading to return to a mask mandate.
Several students spoke against masks, saying they make learning and socializing more difficult.
One called requiring masks “child abuse.”
“It’s my job to decide if my children wear masks,” said one father.
Others said masks have not been proven effective.
Several stressed this would best protect students and teachers.
Judy Robbins, an MPS special education teacher, used “The Three Little Pigs” as a metaphor: “It taught us a strong defense is the best defense. Since the outset of the school year, our defense has not been strong enough … COVID is the big bad wolf.”
Board President Jenny Richardson said she and the other board members received “hundreds and hundreds” of emails.
“Many of them are requesting masks become mandatory, others want masks to remain optional,” Fourlis added.
“Not all staff students and families will be satisfied by our mitigation strategies,” the superintendent said.
Williams said requiring masks in classrooms that have had multiple COVID cases is a change from the current quarantining policy that require students in those classes to learn from home for up to 10 days.
Williams said she hopes this will slow the fast-spreading Delta variant.
She gave an example of a sixth grade class that was quarantined after “four positives, including the teacher.
“After four days, we got (up) to 10 positives. This is a much more contagious… virus,” Williams said. “We have cases in clusters.”
Noting some schools have not had any COVID-19 cases, Williams said the new mask policy is a step before quarantining, which hopefully would be avoided.
“As Dr. Fourlis said, the No. 1 goal is to keep kids in school,” Williams said. “We don’t want to do quarantines.”
Williams said that masks would be required for all students in schools that approach a 3 percent positivity rate.
“Today, we wouldn’t have any campuses that fit into that 3 percent,” she noted.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided guidelines for operation of schools around the country, stating, “Consistent and correct mask use is especially important indoors and in crowded settings, when physical distancing cannot be maintained.”
The CDC also states, “Passengers and drivers must wear a mask on school buses, including on buses operated by public and private school systems.”
Williams said “there are some federal guidelines around that that are required and we’ve just come to learn those,” regarding masks on buses.
She added those federal guidelines “include wearing masks on planes. School buses are called out specifically...That has just become known to us in recent weeks.”
The Tribune asked the district for clarification on which guidelines Williams was quoting. Heidi Hurst, a district spokeswoman, responded the guidance is from “the Jan. 29 CDC order.” The order “required face masks to be worn by all people while on public transportation.”
Meanwhile, “rapid COVID tests,” which provide almost instantaneous results, are coming to MPS.
This week, Williams said each school will have a few dozen rapid tests, with more being ordered.
“We’re not forcing this test on anyone, it’s just an offer,” Williams noted.
“This is the biggest bummer: that we’re having to allocate so many district resources toward COVID, again,” said Ellingson, a board member since January 2021. ν