Eastern Allamakee Community School District Board of Directors approves district-wide mask mandate by 3-1 vote, effective immediately

by Julie Berg-Raymond

In a special session Monday night, November 2, the Eastern Allamakee Community School District (EACSD) Board of Directors voted 3-1 to adopt a district-wide mask mandate for students when they cannot socially distance. The mandate includes home athletic events and provides for an intent to discuss an exit plan for the mandate at a later date, with an immediate effective date.

Board members Bobbie Goetzinger, Heather Schulte and Kelli Mudderman voted in favor of the mandate; member Tony Becker was opposed. Member Melanie Mauss was not present but sent a letter to the board indicating her support of the mandate.

About 50 students and staff members currently are under quarantine in the school district because of contact with individuals who have tested positive for COVID-19. The school district must quarantine for 14 days anyone who has been in close contact with a COVID-19 positive individual - which the Iowa Department of Public Health defines as “having been within six feet of the COVID-19 positive individual for 15 minutes.” If, however, both the infectious individual and the close contacts are wearing face coverings consistently and correctly, quarantine is no longer recommended.

Around 30 people attended the special session, held in the Kee High School gymnasium in Lansing, to offer comments and questions prior to the school board’s discussion and vote. While some attendees expressed opposition to the mandate - from questioning its practicality to worrying about its possible long-term effects - most of the people commenting were in favor of requiring masks, largely because of a concern about further quarantines.

EACSD Superintendent Dr. Dale Crozier said he was impressed with the respect shown during the public discussion. While he recommended the board act to require masks when it’s not possible to socially distance, he said he appreciated the public comments indicating a need for an exit plan and recommended inclusion of that proviso in the mandate.

Comments in opposition to a mask mandate tended to focus on the discomfort for students, with some people wondering about possible long-term psychological effects. A woman who said she works in a school suggested “the art of communication has been diminished greatly. Children don’t smile, anymore; you can’t hear them when they speak. In my heart, I just feel that if this mandate is put in place, there will be huge harm down the road.”

A New Albin man told the board he had “one question: Is this conversation taking place in America, today? I believe the last time I checked, this is a free country that respected individual rights. I believe in freedom of choice. I’m not here for anything personal, other than the innocent children you’re making decisions for.”

Another commenter, a woman who said she has children in both elementary and high school, wondered about the efficacy and practicality of mandating masks in schools: “We know we’re not supposed to touch the masks; but even adults have a hard time not touching them. Wearing a mask for a long period of time is hard.”

Addressing this concern, Dr. Crozier said, “it’s only when you can’t properly socially distance. It’s not like students put on a mask before they get on the bus in the morning and don’t take it off until they get home.” Additionally, Julie Welsh, District Nurse for EACSD, noted, “we do have mask breaks; and we’ve gone outside for more walks than you can shake a stick at. The repetitive quarantines that people will face are also going to have psychological consequences.”

Sheryl Darling-Mooney of Allamakee County Public Health said, “I believe that kids are pretty resilient; we have to see what it is we can do to keep them in school. Will it wipe out all cases? No, it will not. But I do think it will help.”

Julieta Castillo, eighth to 12th grade Spanish teacher, said, “masks will not affect students as badly as quarantine. We all have our beliefs, and we have to respect them; but we all want our kids healthy and in school. For now, that means masks.”

A parent of two elementary school children talked about her concern that her children will fall behind, if they have to stay home. Noting the internet service in her rural location is “sketchy,” she said, “if these masks will help keep them in school, put a mask on them. I need them in school.”

When asked whether the illnesses they’re seeing are serious, Welsh said, “Fortunately, a lot of young people probably have had a little bit milder cases up until this point. But we’ve watched this virus through spring and summer, when we haven’t had a lot of other illnesses running rampant. We are heading into that time of year when these types of things will become more prevalent. My fear is if you start merging these illnesses, we could see an increase in severity.”

“I’ve done a lot of homework,” one man said. “I just ask you to open your eyes and to look at the science. This decision should be based on science, and not on fear.”

In response, Welsh said, “I know people have done their research and I appreciate it; I really do. I have to go back and rely on the science I’m given from people I believe are experts. Eventually it will come out, what works. Right now, the guidance is that in order to protect each other, we have to wear masks.”

One woman took the conversation further, saying, “I think we have to think about this in a much bigger way; we have to trust the science, and just support each other. We can agree to disagree; but if we can be kind and respectful in the process, that says a lot about us as a community.”

Board member Tony Becker, who voted against the mandate, said he is torn on the question because he sees a lot of people in the area not wearing masks when they’re out. “And kids I have talked to are totally against it. At what point do we let kids have a voice? There’s no perfect answer; but at some point, I feel we need to give the kids a voice.”

Goetzinger said, “I don’t believe (masks) work; but as a board member, I feel I need to set my personal feelings aside in order to keep kids in school.” Mudderman concurred, saying, “If it keeps kids in school, I am 100 percent for masks.”

Schulte assured the session attendees this is not a decision the board is taking lightly. “We, like you, have been studying and researching, hearing from health officials and experts. For months, the advice has been the same: The simplest thing is to wear masks when social distancing can’t be observed. We’re the last school in our area, in our conference, to look at this (mandate). I think all of us want to keep our kids in school, if at all possible. Our objective is to provide a safe learning environment for our staff and students.”

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