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Montezuma-Cortez school board votes ‘no’ to mandatory masks for students

Sherry Simmons was the first speaker at Tuesday's emergency school board meeting discussing student mask-wearing.
At emergency meeting, RE-1 board votes 5-2 against mandate

During an emergency board meeting Tuesday night, Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 voted not to mandate student mask-wearing at school.

Board members Sherri Wright, Sheri Noyes, Tammy Hooten, Stacey Hall and Cody Wells voted against the motion to require them.

Members John Schuenemeyer and Chris Flaherty voted to mandate masks.

The district called for the meeting Monday.

Oct 21, 2021
Montezuma-Cortez votes 'no’ to students wearing masks

“We’re recommending masks until the numbers go down,” RE-1 Superintendent Risha VanderWey said before the vote.

Since the start of the school year, 220 students have been quarantined, said Jaclyn Hall, RE-1 health services director.

Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard said she thought 12 kids have tested positive for the virus in the district.

At one school, seven staff have been quarantined, Richard said.

Mitigation criteria are in place to exempt the district from imposing quarantines, of which the district would only have to meet one qualification, said Jaclyn Hall.

For the district to qualify for the exemption, 70% of county residents age 12 or older would have to have at least one vaccination. As of Sunday, the figure was only 66%, Jaclyn Hall said.

The next metric was 35 or less cases per 100,000 residents per seven days. As of Sunday, Montezuma County had 198.9 cases per 100,000 people per seven days.

The district also could be exempt if it had a high rate of vaccination — 70% of staff and students 12 and older with at least one shot — or a high rate of weekly testing — screening of 70% of unvaccinated staff and students.

Jaclyn Hall applied for the state’s weekly testing program, which will be rolled out in early September, she said.

The only other standard that would exempt mandatory quarantines of individuals coming into close contact with those who tested positive is mask wearing of both parties — virus-positive and those in close contact.

Jaclyn Hall said she was concerned the 70% vaccination threshold would change.

Students with medical exemptions would be taken out of the equation, Richard said.

Montezuma-Cortez High School is close to meeting the criteria to be classified as an outbreak site, Jaclyn Hall said.

An outbreak would not cause a school to be automatically shut down. School closure would only commence if staff is reduced to a point where student learning would no longer be supported, she said.

“I’m not a fan of masks, I’m not a fan of my kid wearing a mask,” she said. “But if that’s what it takes to keep a kid in school that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”

Jaclyn Hall became emotional.

“For some, the school setting is the only safe place for them to go,” she said. “It’s the only place that they eat a meal, and it’s the only place they feel comfortable receiving mental health services.”

Richard said that masking isn’t a gray issue — but, rather, black and white – as it came down to either imposing a mask mandate for students and preventing them from quarantining, or allowing families the choice, but risking quarantines.

Exposed parties are required to quarantine for 10 days, unless they show proof of full vaccination or a positive COVID-19 test within the past 90 days.

“That’s kind of the decision: Do we quarantine all those kids, or do we not?” Richard said.

The board allotted an hour for residents to share their thoughts, with each speaker granted two minutes.

The majority of speakers advocated against mandatory masks for students.

Many questioned the effectiveness of masks, as well as the potential that they might cause more damage than good. One mother said her child constantly experienced negative symptoms like a sore throat from masks. Some speakers discussed the idea that children are not as adversely affected by the virus as adults or at severe risk for hospitalization.

“Stop trampling on parents rights,” said Sherry Simmons, the first speaker of the night. “Stop abusing our children.”

A speech pathologist who works with preschoolers expressed concern that young children, as well as those with articulation or sensory issues, autism or anxiety would suffer disproportionately from mask wearing.

“They feel like it's suffocating. Their senses are so heightened, this little piece of fabric feels like it's burning in the skin,” he said. “They're concentrating so hard on breathing, trying not to have a panic attack and trying to get their anxiety under control.”

One high school senior spoke, after previously sending the board an email with his thoughts.

“I lost half of my high school career to COVID,” he said. “This is my senior year, and I don’t want to lose this no matter what. Everything in life has risks.”

Several parents threatened to take their kids out of school.

“It’s safety theater,” said speaker Michael Jenson. “It makes you feel safe, but it doesn’t make you safe.”

Other concerns about mask-wearing included worries that teachers were already stretched too thin and couldn’t “police” student mask-wearing — and frequent at-home washing of the masks.

Two speakers wore masks. They were the only speakers to challenge the majority stance.

One of them has acted as a liaison for Native Americans with families in a hospital intensive care unit.

"I think our best course is the clear guidance from the CDC,“ she said. ”There is a large Native population here who are at risk, and I haven’t heard anyone speak for them yet so I wanted to do that.“

The other was a nurse who has a student enrolled in elementary school in the district.

“We’re working with an incredibly vulnerable population who are not yet eligible for the vaccine,” she said. “If my daughter gets COVID, and she gets her friend sick, who then gets Grandma sick, and she dies — that does matter.”

The board deliberated for an hour after the time for public comment was over.