Masks will stay on in the Manhattan-Ogden school district for the time being.
The school board voted 5-2 Wednesday to keep the district mask requirement in place for at least the next five weeks. The motion to approve the measure came with a stipulation that the district pandemic response plan — and the rule requiring people to wear masks while inside district buildings regardless of vaccination status — be revisited by mid-October.
Board members Brandy Santos and Darell Edie voted against the measure. Santos has previously stated her distaste with mask requirements at other meetings. During Wednesday’s board meeting, she said she understands that wearing a mask is not necessarily for the protection of the wearer, but for others the wearer may encounter. However, she said she believes people should have a choice.
“There are people who have the same viewpoint as me who say, ‘It’s not your job to protect me, it’s my job,’” Santos said.
Santos said she doesn’t want her children to wear masks and doesn’t want others to mandate what her children do, but she said she also doesn’t want mask-wearing to become a divisive issue among Manhattan residents.
“I don’t want it to be a sign of kids only playing with masked or unmasked kids,” Santos said. “If we teach them at home that we are all one people, we don’t have to be divided because of masks.”
Santos said her main concern was that such a mask rule would “set a precedent” for overreach when other illnesses like the flu impact children in the district. USD 383 superintendent Marvin Wade said the plan would not be “to mask up all the time when something comes up” such as the flu.
“There’s a lot of those conversations going on about overreach,” Wade said.
Edie voted in favor of the mask requirement at the board’s Aug. 11 meeting. On Wednesday, he said he felt students “are being segregated with wearing or not wearing masks.”
“I still think we have a false sense of security in masks,” Edie said.
Right now, all students, teachers and staff are required to wear masks inside schools, and all visitors to schools or other district facilities must wear a mask upon entering. In the changes to the pandemic response plan proposed by Wade, district officials would implement a “stoplight” color-coded system for determining the district’s operational approach.
The district is operating under code “red,” meaning the mask rule remains in place for everyone and other COVID-19 mitigation measures will continue. Several board members took issue with the “yellow” code, which states that people may opt out of the mask requirement if they show proof of full vaccination.
“To be blunt, some people get offended if you ask them if they’ve been vaccinated,” board member Curt Herrman said.
Herrman said he trusts the district’s medical advisory committee, which consists of local health officials and physicians, and that he would “rather err on the side of caution” when it comes to mitigating COVID-19. Wade said he and his staff use information from the Riley County Health Department and the medical advisory committee to inform their pandemic-related decisions.
Board vice president Kristin Brighton, who joined the meeting by phone, agreed with Herrman on the “yellow” code designation.
“Having conditions where some people are masked and some people are not could set us up for a mess,” Brighton said. “I think we need to stick to our guns until healthcare providers say the worst is over.”
Board president Jurdene Coleman said she also did not like the “yellow” code criteria, and that she felt it was “not clear.”
“I feel like we’re going to get a lot of heat on that one,” Coleman said. “I don’t think it’s concrete enough. How do we know when to move colors?”
As part of the approved motion, Wade and the board agreed to remove the “yellow” code entirely. The “green” color code would mean masks would not be required and other coronavirus mitigation efforts, such as increased air filtration and physical distancing, would slowly be removed. Wade said achieving “green” status would mean the numbers of COVID-19 cases have dwindled enough locally to allow for relaxed health protocols.
The “stoplight” system is part of the district’s revamped COVID-19 data dashboard. The district took the dashboard, which provides statistics on virus cases within USD 383, offline at the end of the 2020-21 school year in May before revamping it this school year. Wade said district officials have worked with medical professionals locally to adjust the dashboard and reintroduce it with additions like the Riley County vaccination rate and rate of positive tests.
According to the dashboard, for the week of Sept. 5-11 the student attendance rate in the district was a little more than 92%, which was unchanged from the week prior. The staff attendance rate increased from 85% on the second week of classes to 88% for Sept. 5-11.
Last week, 15 students out of about 6,300 tested positive for COVID-19. Zero staff members tested positive in that time. Four staff members had to quarantine last week, while 112 students quarantined.
Board member Karla Hagemeister has previously stated support for a mask requirement and vaccinations. She said she’s concerned about teachers and other staffers under quarantine and the resulting stress other district employees feel as they juggle multiple job duties.
“It’s a matter of having enough people in the building to do the essential functions of operating a safe and appropriate school system,” Hagemeister said.
Board member Katrina Lewison, who joined the meeting via Zoom, said her 9-year-old daughter who cannot get vaccinated yet has “not had issues” wearing a mask while traveling internationally. She encouraged the board and district officials to think about the population of elementary school students who are not yet able to get inoculated against COVID-19.
“We need to continue to lean into masking until we can make sure all kids get the opportunity to get vaccinated,” Lewison said.
District officials will revisit the mask rule at the Oct. 20 board meeting.