Parents continue to clash on masks leading into the school year
The school district is preparing for students to be back in school Monday
GYPSUM — A group of around 50 parents and community members — some with anti-mask protest signs and others wearing masks — joined the school board Wednesday night to passionately express their opinions on the return to school next week.
For over an hour, advocates from both sides of the arguments over masking and vaccinations spoke out during the meeting.
Parents advocating against masking in school made arguments that masks were distracting, detrimental to students’ mental and physical health, and above all that health decisions for students should be left to parents.
“Parents are the sole decision makers in their children’s life, especially when it comes to their health,” said Natalie Jagger, who introduced herself as a concerned mother of four. “As these recommendations continue to surface, families should take this information, they should assess this information and make their own decisions for their children as they see fit. Mandates are pushing parents to the limits, as you can see.”
Several threatened to pull their students from schools should mask mandates be reapplied.
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“I’m done with masks, I’m done with lockdowns and I will not be vaccinated,” said Kevin Dasgupta, an Eagle County father. “If my child has to be vaccinated, I will remove him from school and homeschool him.”
Another parent, Robert Good, expressed that mandates would be “the beginning of the end of the public school system, because we’re all taking our kids out of school if you mask them.”
Karen Kolibaba, a fifth grade teacher and president of the Eagle County Education Association, expressed that teachers are experiencing mixed emotions about returning to school without safety protocols. But despite differing opinions, what teachers need the most is support, she said.
“If you want your children in school, you need to have your teachers in school,” Kolibaba said. “So, our request for our community members is, help us ensure that we have teachers in a classroom for your children.”
Kolibaba added that the best way for concerned parents to help was to join the substitute office or even reach out to their students’ teachers and offer a helping hand with setting up their classrooms.
“Your teachers, even while they are concerned about what may come this year, Eagle County’s children’s educators are visibly preparing to welcome students back into buildings,” Kolibaba said.
Other parents, wearing masks, asked the board and district to consider the community’s health as a whole, have a plan for immune-comprised students and staff and implored them to consider re-implementing mask mandates.
One mother asked the audience members, many of whom used freedom and choice in their statements to consider that freedom means taking care of each other. “People stand here and talk about personal choice. When you refuse to take on those responsibilities [masks, social distancing etc.], it’s not your choice anymore, you made that choice for those all around you,” she said.
Earlier this week, one Eagle County mother, Audrey Songer, started a petition on Change.org to ask the district to reconsider its policy.
“The voice that seems to be the loudest in our community in this discussion has been from families that are adamantly against universal masks in our community,” Songer wrote in an email to the Vail Daily. “I felt like it was important to share the other perspective with those in the community and give them a place to share their voice in a small way if they are not comfortable or unable to write to the school board, or attend county or school board meetings regarding masks.”
Jessica Van Dusen, who spoke at the school board meeting and supported the petition, said that she’s especially concerned for children under the age of 12 who are ineligible for vaccines.
“One of the main responsibilities of the school board is to oversee and enact policy that keeps students and teachers safe while at school,” Van Dusen said. “The decision made by the school board and superintendent Monday did exactly the opposite of that. They are playing Russian roulette with children’s lives. This pandemic is not happening in a vacuum, and we in Eagle County do not live in a bubble. The national trends will come to our town and I do not want to wait and see, because it is not a matter of ‘if,’ it’s a matter of ‘when.’”
District defends mask policy
Earlier this week, the district sent out an email to parents, reiterating its stance on masks for the upcoming school year. With school starting on Monday for most district schools, the district held that due to the current vaccination rates of age-eligible residents in the county, “there will be no mandatory mask requirement in school district buildings.”
Masks will be required on district school buses due to federal transportation regulations.
However, this news came with the caveat that the school district will continue to track transmission rates and severe illness and work with Eagle County Public Health “to determine if it is necessary to make a change in protocol,” according to the email.
Superintendent Philip Qualman said at Wednesday’s board meeting that, according to public health, there are only two key factors that would trigger a change in protocol. First, if severe illness started to have a greater impact on those who are vaccinated; and second, if there is an increase in the severity of symptoms among young people.
“We won’t be changing protocols if some are uncomfortable or frightened. Those are not criteria to which we anchor our policies,” Qualman said.
Throughout his comments on the pandemic and return to school at the meeting, Qualman focused on the damage that mandates have had on students.
“I’m starting my third year as superintendent in this school district and every year so far has been impacted by this pandemic,” Qualman said. “So, starting my third year in this role, managing a pandemic is my normal. It’s all I know in this position, and I’ve witnessed first-hand in this position the toll it’s taken on staff and students.”
Qualman went on to note that the crisis mode that the district has been operating in has ceased to serve the needs of students and staff.
“How much irreparable damage do we levy on everyone by maintaining crisis level responses when our local data suggests we need not impose harsh restrictions or mandates?” he said.
As of now, Qualman reiterated that the mask decision will lie with parents, but the plan remains up to the fluxuations of local data.
“As your superintendent, my job is to ensure student learning in safe environments,” he said. “We will not allow in-person learning to be jeopardized by high rates of absenteeism or quarantines; if our data changes, so will our plan.”
Getting back to school
Following the public comment portion of the evening, when there was a mass exodus of many of the evening’s speakers, about 10 audience members remained as the school board got down to its regular business. Board members Ted Long and Fernando Almanza both expressed gratitude for those that stayed.
“Your comments don’t go out the window, I truly take them to heart. That’s the reason I’m here is to listen to the community and the needs of the community,” Almanza said. “But I would like to pay attention to the eight of you that stayed. The importance [of the school board] is everything, it’s the whole meeting, the whole education system.”
“I hope that people are understanding that the school board is probably not what you think it is; we care about so many things and so many things we have to sit through and listen to and the high profile, controversial things, generally speaking are not those things that we spend 100% of our time on,” Long said.
Long added that while he is proud to be a part of a community that expresses their right to speak out and be heard, he wishes the energy would be focused on other items of need in the schools.
While the district seems ready to move forward without COVID-19 mandates, this year will not be without its challenges. Qualman made note of other items outside of COVID that could impact the upcoming school year, primarily staffing.
While the district did, according to Qualman, hire a significant number of new staff members — 20 to 25% are new faces, he said — there is still a large need. There are currently 20 open positions for certified staff and 30 unfilled positions, with housing remaining one of the biggest barriers to hiring. The biggest area of need, however, remains with staffing bus drivers, which led to a change in start and stop times for schools this year.
Staffing is an issue that has great potential to be amplified by COVID-19. According to Assistant Superintendent Melisa Rewold-Thuon, going into the school year six staff members are out with COVID-19. She echoed Kolibaba’s comments in the meeting, asking the community to step up and be signed up as guest teachers to “help maintain student routine.”
Qualman expressed gratitude for the public showing up at Wednesday’s meeting, but he also expressed a desire for respect.
“When this is over, we will all still be neighbors. We can’t let our differing opinions drive a wedge between neighbors,” he said. “Let’s finish as strong as we started and continue to cooperate for the sake of our community, not just our schools.”
Classes resume Monday, Aug. 16
All schools will have in-person learning five days a week
School will have a 1-hour late start on Wednesdays
Masks will not be required, but are encouraged for those who are unvaccinated
Masks will be required on school buses
Classes will return to normal size
Extracurricular activities will resume without restrictions
Field trips will resume
Visitors will be allowed in schools with appointments
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.