Rancor over masking policy filters into R-1 school board session

By Buck Collier, Special Correspondent
Posted 9/22/21

HERMANN — What has long been perhaps the most non-partisan of policymaking bodies — school districts’ boards of directors — are taking on a partisan hue as public education …

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Rancor over masking policy filters into R-1 school board session

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HERMANN — What has long been perhaps the most non-partisan of policymaking bodies — school districts’ boards of directors — are taking on a partisan hue as public education administrators wrestle with a modern-day dilemma: To mask or not to mask.

The rift among members of school boards reflects the difference of opinion on masking mandates for students found within the general population of many communities — in Missouri, as well as across the nation. And it’s the degree of disagreement that’s putting some communities and their local school boards in the national spotlight. Most recently, it was in Pleasant Hill where the difference of opinion on masking spilled out of the local school board meeting room and into the parking lot. Police were summoned to break up a brawl that evolved from the debate on masking that took place during the school board session.

While the disagreement has not reached the level of punches on the parking lot in Gasconade County school districts, there is a great divide — both within the community and on at least one school board — that doesn’t seem to be closing any time soon.

At last week’s regular monthly session of the Gasconade County R-1 School District board, a significant amount of time was spent discussing the quarantining of students, whether a mask mandate is needed for students and how effective it is to quarantine students who don’t develop symptoms of the coronavirus.

And, like in other communities in Missouri and across the country, parents and school board members in the R-1 District are casting pointed questions to their public health officials regarding the policy on sending students home because of their proximity to a classmate who tests positive for COVID-19. It’s the quarantining of students for about two weeks that’s a major concern for parents such as those who attended the R-1 Board session to hear Health Department Administrator Greg Lara respond to three specific questions from the R-1 board about the use of quarantine.

But while the use of quarantine is not a local decision, a mask mandate is. It was clear early in the pandemic that Gov. Mike Parson would not mandate the use of masks, preferring to leave the matter to local government officials. Those officials reasoned that if the the governor wouldn’t call for a mask mandate, why should they. So, it was left to the school districts to decide a course of action.

Indeed, during the last school year masks were required for most R-1 students with the requirement being lifted with the start of this year’s classes, thanks mainly to a drop in COVID-19 cases and a return to a more normal school setting.

And then came the Delta variant, a more highly transmissible strain of coronavirus that hit younger people especially hard. The arrival of the variant revived the debate over masking. Finding ways to deal with the variant is a priority project, but the steps being taken to reduce the likelihood of a student catching Delta do not include a mask mandate for students.

Even as local Delta cases mount quickly, it’s clear the R-1 board is in no hurry to put in place a policy that appears to have as many detractors as supporters within the R-1 community. Still, some directors feel this variant, or some newer strain of coronavirus, will push the district to such a decision.

“We need to look at history,” said longtime Director Mike Pratte.

“We may have to go there,” said longtime Director Mike Pratte, noting that mask wearing last school year enabled students to remain in class.

But Director Tim Schulte, taking a different approach in his stand against a mask mandate, cited what is seen by some to be low numbers of deaths of youngsters attributed to COVID. He pointed out that only five students under the age of 18 and only two under the age of 5 had died from COVID. That changed later in the week when a sixth student under the age of 18 died in the metro St. Louis area.

Pointing to those figures, Schulte dismissed the need for a masking policy. “This is asinine,” he said. “It’s getting out of control.”

But other directors are more inclined to accept a masking policy if it means fewer students being quarantined. “If it’s going to keep our kids in school, I’m 100 percent for it,” said board member Dot Schoenig, a former principal in the Gasconade County R-2 School District’s Gerald Elementary School.

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