‘We need your support’: Possibility of mandatory masks takes center stage during school board meeting

Unsplash, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — During a meeting on Tuesday held live on Facebook, the Washington County School Board discussed both feedback from a recent survey sent out to parents as well as reopening guidelines for August. The possibility of students and staff having to wear masks became a primary focus of the meeting.

The Washington County School District Board of Trustees holds a meeting and approves a new policy regarding local educational agency specific licensing and endorsements for district teachers, St. George, Utah, Dec. 10, 2019 | Photo by Ryann Richardson, St. George News

The district received approximately 9,300 respondents to the survey – around 45% of the total survey requests – that was sent out to parents on May 28. The survey showed about 87% of parents are in favor of sending their kids back to school in August with few or no reservations.

Parents also chose hand washing as the preferred method of precaution, while wearing a mask was shown as not popular. In the case that schools won’t be able to facilitate full school days, parents preferred part-time school days over home schooling or online instruction. They also received over 2,700 comments, which are still under review.

Board President David Stirland said the topic of masks has been divisive, and they have been receiving emails regarding this issue.

District Superintendent Larry Bergeson told the board that having masks for students when they return to school is the most important thing the district can do in order to comply with state and local guidelines and ensure the highest safety and health precautions.

Unsplash, St. George News

“Masks are not popular,” he told the board, “but I am telling you, we need your support.”

At the current yellow level of caution in Utah, wearing masks is mandatory for schools when social distancing cannot be maintained, which would make crowded classrooms and buses key areas where masks would be required.

The district is considering a vendor that will sell cloth masks for $2 a piece, and each student would receive two masks. They also plan to have hand sanitizer in every classroom and disinfectant fogging machines, all of which will be paid for by the federal CARES Act fund.

Despite this, the discussion turned back to whether wearing masks was feasible for all students.

Bergeson said he was “150% in favor of masks” if wearing them is what it takes for students to return to a more normal level of in-person schooling, which would allow many parents to go to back to work and help stimulate the economy.

Signs saying “My teacher misses me,” are delivered to Horizon elementary students, Washington City, Utah, date not specified | Photo courtesy of Emily Holt, St. George News

“Because we can’t teach them if we’re not there with them,” he said, speaking on behalf of district teachers. “You can remote teach them in first grade, but it’s not the same.”

During this discussion, public comments on Facebook were split. Some people expressed concern with wearing masks.

“If you require masks your numbers are gonna go down drastically when most choose to home school,” Jen Robbins wrote. “Come on these kids aren’t gonna suffocate in masks all day everyday! And there’s no way I’m gonna make my kids do that!”

Others, such as Charlie Bird, expressed gratitude to the district while still voicing concern surrounding uncertainty if wearing a mask all day is good for children’s health. Bird wrote:

My family wears masks when we go into stores and public indoor places, but I am not sure having my 5th grader wearing a mask every school day is what is best for her health. If masks are going to be required and have the kids in school for full days, I may choose to homeschool. We appreciate all the efforts you are putting in to try and get our kids back in school and keep them as safe as possible. Covid-19 is a real threat, even though a lot of our society acts as though it isn’t.

Ultimately, whether students and teachers will be mandated to wear masks is not up to the district and could change by the time schools are set to reopen in August, which is why other school operation options were offered as part of the survey.

Regardless, Bergeson stressed the importance of wearing masks and referred to research that suggests wearing masks does help suppress the spread of the coronavirus.

“It spiked, and it’s going to continue to, unless we get smarter about what we’re doing because it’s extremely contagious,” he said. “Everybody wants to get back to normal, but until we get a vaccine, we’re going to have to be smart with how we do this thing.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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