In split vote, Iron County School District board decides to keep following mask mandate

Iron County School District Board of Education members listen as fellow member Dave Staheli makes a motion regarding statewide mask mandate, Cedar City, Utah, March 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

CEDAR CITY — In a split vote Tuesday night, the Iron County School District Board of Education decided to continue following the statewide mask mandate in its schools, at least for the time being.

At the board’s regular monthly action meeting Tuesday night, which ran over 3 1/2 hours, board members and district officials heard from a number of residents on the issue of requiring masks to be worn in schools. 

As noted by school board president Michelle Lambert at the onset of the meeting, Utah schools are still under a mask mandate from the Utah Department of Public Health.

“Even though the Legislature is removing the general mask mandate April 10, the schools remain until July 1. And so we are still under a mask mandate for the remainder of the school year,” Lambert said.

Nevertheless, board member Dave Staheli said it was time to revisit the issue.

Commenters line up to speak during Iron County School District Board of Education meeting, Cedar City, Utah, March 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“It’s time for us to relook at this,” he said. “The numbers have gone down tremendously from their highs back in the fall.”

According to the district’s own figures that were cited during the meeting, Iron County School District currently has nine active cases of COVID-19 among its approximately 10,000 students in grades K-12 and 1,000-plus staff. Additionally, the district has documented a total of 606 positive cases of COVID-19 since the school year started on Aug. 25. Of those, 36 students and 12 adult employees were linked to in-school contact.

Staheli proposed allowing parents and guardians to exempt their own children from wearing masks at school.

“We do, as a board, have the authority to not require a doctor’s note and allow parents to make that decision for whether their children will or will not be required to wear a mask,” he said.

Staheli also said the leaders of local law enforcement agencies have indicated they will not enforce the latest statewide public health order, dated Feb. 24, 2021.

Staheli then made a two-part motion to allow parents to exempt their own children from having to wear a mask at school and school activities, and to “prohibit any form of discrimination by administrators, teachers, staff, district employees or other students against any student who has a mask exemption from a parent, guardian or doctor.”

Fellow board member Jeff Corry seconded the motion, after which a roll call vote was taken. Staheli and Corry both voted in favor, but the motion failed when the other three board members – Ben Johnson, Michelle Lambert and Dale Brinkerhoff – all voted nay.

As he cast the deciding vote, Brinkerhoff offered a substitute motion that included five aspects, including the possibility of encouraging but not requiring masks to be worn by children on buses. However, after a brief discussion, Brinkerhoff’s motion died for lack of a second.

A vehicle with an anti-mask sign is parked outside Iron County School District Board of Education meeting, Cedar City, Utah, March 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“It is truly a charade to show that we will just go along with things,” Staheli said as the board then moved on to the next agenda item.

Prior to that vote, during the hourlong public comment portion of the meeting, approximately two dozen individuals addressed the board, most of them adhering to the allotted two-minute time limit. Of the 16 people that talked about the mask issue, there were 13 who were in favor of getting rid of the mask mandate, while three were in favor of keeping it in place.

Those against the mask mandates cited such arguments as constitutional rights, parental choice and the efficacy of the masks themselves.

“Our kids have been masked for 136 school days,” said parent Cory Greer. “Our kids have been denied body autonomy for 136 days. Our kids have been bullied by teachers and administrators and school resource police officers by order of the state for 136 days. And teachers have been put in a position where they’re required to uphold it, whether they agree or not. And that’s wrong for them as well to be put in that position. It’s past time to end the mask mandates.”

“I am not alone in the belief that wearing face masks all day is detrimental to a child’s health,” commenter Kenny Merrill stated. “Not allowing me or other parents to make a decision concerning our children’s health is directly going against our rights and protection under the Constitution.”

Patti Maser, a school district bus driver, added her perspective.

“If I didn’t have a medical issue that prevents me from wearing a mask, I would not choose to wear a mask,” Maser said. “Masks are something that should be a parenting choice, an individual choice, and should not be forced on anyone at any time.”

Another commenter, who said she’s the mother of a 4-year-old daughter with multiple medical issues, said, “I’d also like to say that being the parent of a medically fragile child, it is my responsibility to protect her. It is not your responsibility to protect her.”

Iron County School District nurse Lauri Baumgartner speaks during school board meeting, Cedar City, Utah, March 23, 2021 | Screenshot image courtesy of Iron County School District, St. George News / Cedar City News

“My family believes that the psychological effects of the masks on the children is worse than the risk of spreading disease,” she added.

Iron County Commissioner Paul Cozzens also spoke, identifying himself simply as a “concerned father.”

Cozzens said his eighth-grade daughter, who uses a prosthetic arm that enables her to play the violin, was reprimanded in class when her mask slipped below her nose and she was unable to fix it while practicing.

“I’m tired of the hypocrisy,” Cozzens said. “It’s time to let parents have personal choice. And let kids have personal choice to decide what they want to do with their lives.”

Dr. Stephen Workman also expressed his opposition to masks. 

“As adults, you can’t even keep your hands off your own mask,” he said. “And if you can’t wash your hands every time you do it or change your mask every time you have touched it, then you are being extremely hypocritical.”

Workman also mentioned a recent study in Sweden that reportedly tracked “nearly 2 million kids in school with no masks, zero deaths, no significant increase in teacher transmission.”

Among the other commenters, Brad Green said faith, not fear, should be the guiding factor.

Another commenter said he empathized with those who’ve dealt with COVID-19.

“I’m sorry for all the emotional loss and suffering that has occurred because of COVID-19,” he said. “It is real. I know personally that it’s real, but masks don’t work.”

Added another man: “We’re a free people. And if we’re free people, we ought to act like it.”

Still, there were a few who argued in favor of keeping the current mandate in place. One mother of two elementary-age children noted that the mask mandate has helped make in-person school attendance possible this year.

“We’ve been able to manage our numbers here in our county very well, and I think that’s largely due to masks in schools, masks in public,” she said. “And we’re able to encourage those who are at high risk to remain at home.”

Orchestra teacher Christina Carrigan said she supports the wearing of masks, as difficult as it has been for her and her music students.

“The purpose of the mask mandate is to protect people,” she said. “Your mask keeps your germs to yourself. That’s how masks work. While wearing a mask provides a certain amount for individual protection, if all parties wear a mask, the protection is greatly increased.”

“My concern with mask exemptions is not about the individual who ends up not wearing the mask,” Carrigan added. “It is about the risk to all of the other people that are around. Again, as a teacher, it is my job to protect our students and I cannot do my job and ensure we’re doing everything possible to keep our schools safe if we do not require masks.”

Emily Barney passed out photos of her late mother to the board members before tearfully noting that her mother was among the more than “half a million people who would die from this wretched virus.”

Cedar High Principal Terri Sanders speaks during Iron County School District Board of Education meeting, Cedar City, Utah, March 23, 2021 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

“We are responsible to keep our babies and everyone else safe,” Barney said. “Please keep the mask mandate until the school year’s over, so that you do not have to go through what I went through.”

After the public comment period had ended and before Staheli made his motion, the board members called upon school nurse Lauri Baumgartner to give her perspective as a healthcare practitioner.

Current directives from Utah State Board of Education, Baumgartner noted, do not allow for personal exemptions to be written by parents “for any reason they want.”

“So as a (local) school board, as far as I understand, we don’t have the right to make that decision,” she said. “I am not saying that’s right or wrong, because I sympathize with everybody.”

Other speakers during the public comment period addressed topics such as flex or advisory time, early-out and late-start schedules, and concerns about bullying and racism.

In other action Tuesday, the school board:

  • Unanimously approved the new school fee schedule for 2021-22;
  • Approved several updates to the district’s policy handbook;
  • Heard from business administrator Todd Hess, who said the district is within three years of paying off its existing bonds;
  • Recognized several students from Cedar High School, including the debate team, two wrestlers who made it to the state finals and the 4A state champion boys basketball team;
  • Unveiled the district’s new STEM logo, designed by Claire Swope, the Arts Sterling Scholar from Canyon View High;
  • Heard about the Cool 2 Care program and other recent happenings at Parowan High. Principal Kim Bailey highlighted teachers of the year Amy Wilkey and Pat Benson and thanked them for their contributions;
  • And a memorial tribute was given to longtime Parowan Elementary teacher Michael D. Robinson, who died of cancer on March 2 at age 56. The tribute was given by his colleague and namesake, fellow teacher Michael D. Robinson. The school plans to honor Robinson’s memory with a plaque and an annual bike ride.

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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