Back to priorities: School board looks to move past mask debate
At the first board meeting of the school year, superintendent expresses his desire to focus on district’s strategic plan
GYPSUM — After months of tense Board of Education meetings, filled with protest posters and demands, the first board meeting after the return to school Aug. 16 seemed to represent a shift for the Eagle County School District.
While the meeting still saw a packed house of parents, teachers and community members, the district made a change to policy to increase equity of discussion and ensure all attendees have an equal opportunity to speak.
“I do think many of you might be here because you’d heard these meetings are really exciting. And I can tell you, the 10 years that I’ve been attending the meetings, 99% of them are not, but the ones that we’ve had in the last few weeks have been. I credit you guys for showing up and taking an interest and being involved in the process,” Superintendent Philip Qualman said. “We have tried to ensure a system that is more fair tonight by eliminating the first-come, first-serve practice of public participation.”
However, after all the parents spoke, in his remarks, Qualman praised parents for their increased involvement, but also expressed a desire to return to other priorities as the school year kicks off.
“All the time and energy that we spend in the back and forth over mandates, masks and the curriculum is time and energy that I don’t spend focusing on our priorities,” he said. “I’m making the choice to focus on our strategic plan and priorities that this board has endorsed and I ask my team to do the same. Those priorities going forward include wellness, equity and systems of support.”
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Qualman went on to state that while he understands the outrage and frustration of parents, he has his own.
“I have to express my frustrations on balance. I’m tasked with understanding and working within a system of K-12 education and therein lies my outrage. I’m appalled that Colorado ranks 43rd out of 51 states, including D.C., in K-12 spending,” he said. “I’m frustrated that in a state with such a great quality of life, we place such a low value on educating our children.”
Qualman went on to add that he has come to accept this truth as part of his social contract as the district’s superintendent and as community member and parent.
“We run a school district within our means and I think we provide a heck of a product,” he said, adding, “I have frustrations, but I’m also grateful.”
Several parents and community members that spoke also expressed a desire to set a better example for students.
“What happened two weeks ago broke my heart. The toxicity and the vitriol has got to stop, because our kids are watching. They learn from us,” said Carol Johnson, a local parent. “We need to ditch the drama and stick to the facts.”
The meeting did have a different energy from previous ones. There was no booing or chatter from the crowd when they disagreed with comments made. Instead participants spoke with passion and listened. And in previous meetings, as there has been an exodus of nearly all of the parents following the public participation, this week over half remained to hear the board discuss its regular business of district budgets, grading practices and more.
Masks and COVID-19 impact
There were still several parents at Wednesday’s meeting who expressed frustration and disappointment in the district’s decision to require masks for all pre-kindergarten to eighth grade schools just three days before school started. The decision, which was made in conjunction with Eagle County Public Health and the Environment, followed local COVID-19 disease trends.
Just this week, Eagle County has experienced a rise in local hospitalizations as the delta variant rises in prominence and the incidence rate reaches 255 cases per 100,000 people. The county also reported two new deaths of residents from COVID-19, one of them a woman in her 30s.
According to Assistant Superintendent Melisa Rewold-Thuon, the school district currently has 17 student positives with seven more unconfirmed positive reports from parents as of Wednesday’s meeting. While the district has not done any full school quarantines, it does have 27 students in quarantine and has issued 12 exposure notices.
Multiple parents at the meeting continued to express concern for students’ mental health and physical well-being as a result of mask wearing.
“There are people on all political sides who are concerned about the effects of masking on children,” said Rebecca Zimmer, a local parent. “We are causing them a mounting emotional, mental and academic crisis. We cannot ask our kids to put their own lives on hold for one more day in the name of protecting adults.”
However, several board members as well as some community members expressed that masks or no masks, it was good to be back in school with full activities.
Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher at Red Hill Elementary and president of the Eagle County Education Association, said that with her students, while some were disappointed to return wearing masks, they were choosing to focus on the positives. Among the positives, Kolibaba said, were eating in the cafeteria again, having collaborative groups in person rather than in a Google Meet, having the entire playground to explore at recess and more.
“My students, regardless of the mask mandate, are so excited to show up to school each and every day — they are learning, they are growing,” she said. “And when we stop and look back at all of these opportunities, there are really so many positive things. We will continue to be grateful, we will continue to learn, and we will have a great school year, regardless of what the mask mandate is.”
Qualman echoed this sentiment, saying that for their part, his own kids “thoroughly enjoyed this last week and a half of school,” and expressed his gratitude to teachers, staff and administrators for making it a possibility.
Johnson, in response to statements made that mask wearing was detrimental to students’ mental health, said she felt it was the opposite.
“I think when they get stuck at home and their sports get canceled and their activities get canceled, that is what’s detrimental to their mental health. And that’s the direction the school district will be heading if we’re not wearing masks,” Johnson said.
According to Eagle County Public Health, the district and local public health officials will re-evaluate the schools’ mask order Sept. 15. According to Heath Harmon, the director of Eagle County Public Health and Environment, this decision will largely hinge on local incidence and transmission rates, specifically changes in rates for youth that remain ineligible for the vaccine. The department previously stated that schools that reach a vaccination rate above 80% would also see a relaxed order.
“We are proud to offer what we can and hope to get back to a mask-free normal as soon as possible,” Qualman said.
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at email@example.com.