Springfield Board of Education to make student mask mandate decision on Friday
SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (KY3) - The Springfield Board of Education will meet Friday (Jan. 28) at 11 a.m. to decide whether or not to require students to wear masks when they return to in-person learning next week. Employees and visitors already have a mask mandate but extending that to students would put the state’s largest school system at odds with Missouri’s attorney general who’s threatening to sue if a mandate is put in place.
“It’s really unfortunate that this issue has become so polarizing,” said SPS Chief Communications Officer Stephen Hall.
“Opinions regarding mask reinstatement vary greatly in our community,” said Danielle Kincaid, an SPS Board of Education member, at the board’s last meeting where the decision was made to take up the issue. “The seven of us though have been tasked with the difficult decision and it has a direct impact on the safety of our students and staff.”
But should the Springfield Board of Education decide on a temporary mask mandate for students that would last until February 18, it will probably join the list of 45 school districts across the state who have already been sued by Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has come under criticism for using the mask mandate controversy to gain favor with Republican voters in his run for the U.S. Senate.
“The General Assembly has never delegated this kind of authority to school districts to force masking or to quarantine healthy kids,” Schmitt said during a recent interview with KY3. “They just haven’t. And that’s the basis of our lawsuit that we’ve filed with parents all across the state.”
“For me the safety and health of our children, families and teachers is more important than the cost associated with legal fees,” said board member Dr. Shurita Thomas-Tate at the recent meeting.
The board knows the ramifications of its decision but the administration is recommending the move because of the large number of new COVID-19 cases that caused Springfield’s public schools to close last week and revert to virtual learning this week.
“The most cases of COVID that you would see in SPS would have been around 100 over a seven-day stretch during the 18 months of the pandemic,” Hall explained. “Then you look at last week when we had over 700 cases reported. The week before that over 800 cases. And when you look at the impact on the learning environment when over 20 percent of our workforce and almost 20 percent of our student population would be out on one day, that is shocking.”
But another consideration for the board to discuss will be just how effective are the cloth masks that most students wear?
“There’s no study anywhere that will show you the effectiveness of cloth masks,” Schmitt said. “Even the advocates now have called it merely facial decorations.”
“It’s great if you’re going through the halls. It’s great if somebody sneezes on you if you’re at the grocery store,” pointed out Dr. Maryam Mohammadkhani, a board member and retired pathologist. “But if you’re going to be with somebody for more than 25 minutes, it’s not going to do you one darn bit of good.”
Springfield-Greene County Health Director Katie Towns was asked what advice her department had been giving about cloth masks during a media briefing on Wednesday.
“Omicron has a suspicious way of escaping masking and we have seen that with the way the case rates have increased,” she answered. “The guidance that we have always communicated is to follow the CDC and masks are an effective way of decreasing transmission. We also know that as a community we are not using masking as much as we did earlier when the masks were required. So we’re not saying masking hasn’t worked but that it’s a combination of factors. In a congregant setting and when you are in proximity with other people, we recommend using a face covering to reduce transmission.”
Whatever happens, there’s no doubt Friday’s decision will be watched by other districts across the state.
“I think every school district likes local control,” said Republic Superintendent Dr. Matt Pearce when asked about the situation. “When the state attorney general makes the decision that impacts all public schools in the state of Missouri it takes away that local control. While we typically want to be doing what’s right with legal directives, there may be some school districts that want to address those things and certainly they’ve taken away some measures in mitigating the virus.”
Depending on the board’s decision on Friday, Springfield may be joining those other 45 districts who’ve decided to address those legal matters even though SPS did get rid of its previous mask mandate after Schmitt’s original cease-and-desist letter..
“Springfield rightfully backed away like a lot of school districts did from their illegal policies,” Schmitt said. “I know some of these bureaucrats want to say they’re doing something but the truth is it’s time to let go of that and let the parents make these decisions themselves.”
But SPS feels it has the right to reinstate the mandate if it chooses to.
“Our number one priority is the health and well-being of the children and our staff,” Hall said. “So we stand by every decision we have made. We amended our protocol based on a cease-and-desist letter but any decision moving forward will be made with the authority of the board of education, an elected body, who are committed to serving this community. They will make the right decisions.”
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