Manhattan-Ogden school board candidates on Tuesday had split opinions on whether the board acted correctly by removing mask restrictions at Manhattan High.

Four of the six candidates on the ballot participated in a student-led forum moderated by Manhattan High senior Kris Long, the editor-in-chief of the MHS Mentor student newspaper, and the leaders of the high school Democrat and Republican parties.

Of the candidates, Karla Hagemeister, Teresa Parks, Jayme Morris-Hardeman and Steven Ruzzin attended. Fellow candidates Christine Weixelman and Betty Mattingly-Ebert said they had previous commitments and were not present.

About 30 people, mostly students, watched the forum in person at the Anthony Recreation Center. Students also livestreamed the forum on the MHS Student Media YouTube page.

Long asked candidates about the recent decision by the school board to make masks optional for MHS students and staff starting Nov. 1, while maintaining a mask rule for elementary and middle schools as well as early learning centers.

Morris-Hardeman said if she were on the school board during the Oct. 20 meeting, she would not have voted in favor of loosening the mask mandate.

“I’m much more cautious about COVID than other people are,” Morris-Hardeman said. “We all have our own comfort level with risk, and mine has been fairly low with this.”

Morris-Hardeman said she would’ve wanted the Riley County vaccination rate to be higher before making a move away from masks.

Parks, who supports the mandate, said choosing to wear a mask, as well as getting vaccinated or not, is “something that comes down to a matter of courtesy for others.”

Ruzzin said he thinks making masks mandatory was “a bad choice the first time around” although he said he understands why the mandate was put in place.

“I respect anybody that wants to wear a mask,” Ruzzin said, “and I think we should prevent the discrimination either direction, if people do or don’t want to wear a mask.”

Ruzzin, who removed his mask before the forum — a violation of a city facility mask mandate, which ended Wednesday — said mask-wearing as well as COVID-19 vaccinations for children should be a parent’s choice and are “not something that should be in the authority of the school board to mandate.”

Hagemeister, an incumbent board member, said she voted to change the mask rule after consulting with the district’s medical advisory committee and learning that vaccinations against the coronavirus for children ages 5-11 are close to being approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

“That was a challenge for me in that position, because I know we’ve got some risks,” Hagemeister said, “but I also think that we have to look to the future. I don’t want us to live in masks our entire life.”

Hagemeister said it’s important for district officials to “look very carefully” at Riley County COVID-19 data and “be willing to change if we need to.” The board will review the mask rule again on Nov. 19. District officials will use the three-week block of uninterrupted school days starting Nov. 1 to track coronavirus data to base future decisions on.

Although not at the forum, Weixelman and Mattingly-Ebert previously told The Mercury in a voters guide question that they didn’t believe the district should have implemented a mask mandate this school year.

Long asked the candidates their thoughts on culturally responsive teaching and learning (CRTL) and whether they would vote in favor of the teacher training program if they were elected to the board.

Hagemeister said CRTL shouldn’t be mistaken for critical race theory, which features a similar acronym. She said culturally responsive teaching and learning helps “enable teachers and staff to be able to look at things through different lenses,” and that she would support ongoing opportunities for professional development.

In May, the board rescinded a purchase of CRTL teacher training sessions from educational consulting firm BetterLesson because of what the administrators said was a lack of designated funds.

That same month, leaders of the Riley County Republican Party sent an email accusing the USD 383 board of trying to implement critical race theory as a training tool. Critical race theory is a legal concept that explores how racism is embedded in U.S. law; it is not approved by any education agency in Kansas and is banned in several other states.

Ruzzin said he does not support using the culturally responsive teaching and learning tools because of similarities to critical race theory.

He said when looking “line for line and point by point” at the BetterLesson CRTL programming, it includes words like “microaggressions” and “systemic racism” that he said are also used within the language of critical race theory documents. He said the latter is troublesome because of the way “it separates people into groups.”

Parks said “a lot of the kerfuffle” surrounding culturally responsive teaching and learning was a “misunderstanding” about the district’s intentions behind the purchase. She said she would support CRTL training for teachers to “have a better understanding of how to relate to different students.”

Morris-Hardeman, who is favor of the training, said the goal of educator training programs like CRTL would be to improve diversity, equity and inclusion in classrooms districtwide.

Weixelman and Mattingly-Ebert have previously said they don’t support the CRTL training sessions.

After a round of questions from Long, audience member directly addressed candidates “town hall” style.

When asked about her position on the high school dress code, Parks said she’s noticed “inequities” between what is considered acceptable clothing for female students versus male students.

“Girls are getting dinged for dress code violations way more than boys,” Parks said. “My daughters have been sent home for wearing the exact same kind of tank top that my sons wore and were fine all day.”

Parks said more conversations about dress code concerns will be needed to determine how to potentially rectify some of those inequities.

One student, whose pronoun preference is they/them, said they ran from home to the Anthony Recreation Center to ask a question. The student asked Ruzzin how he felt about hypothetically incorporating LGBTQ+ education and history — particularly pronoun preference — into district curriculum.

Ruzzin said he would not be comfortable with any content that could potentially “force” the use of “they/them” pronouns, and that he would simply call a person by their name instead of using any pronouns while “being as respectful as I can be.” He said “forced speech does not equal free speech.”

“I think people have the right to offend other people,” Ruzzin said. “And that is offensive, and they shouldn’t do it, but they have the right to.”

The general election is Nov. 2.