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Grand Island Public Schools' mask policy questioned at meeting

Grand Island Public Schools' mask policy questioned at meeting

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Grand Island Public Schools’ mask policy was front and center during the Board of Education meeting Thursday night.

Parents expressed concerns about the district’s policy mandating that all students and staff members wear masks and the need to adjust the policy. The parents are a part of the “No Masks GI” Facebook group. At least one parent outside the group supported the district’s mandatory mask policy.

Shree Arends said she hoped the board could “have an open mind and heart to hear our concerns for our children and community.” She asked the board to consider giving parents a choice on whether their students wear masks at school.

“We live in America. We deserve a choice to wear a mask or not wear a mask,” Arends said.

She also expressed concerns with how GIPS is requiring students to wear masks while engaging in sports or physical activities when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against it as it compromises their breathing.

According to information on the CDC’s website, masks should be considered, but not required, when students are at recess or in physical education classes. The CDC encourages schools to conduct activities in “an area with greater ventilation or air exchange,” such as outdoors, and that vigorous exercise in a confined space indoors “may contribute to transmission of COVID-19 and should be limited.”

In his remarks to the board, Nathan Miller said that when he was on a walk, he saw two teachers walking on the bike trail taking a mask break and “getting some fresh air.” He said he also saw an elementary-aged boy sitting outside with his teacher taking a mask break.

“There was a teacher standing there watching him. He was standing over there wearing his mask and had his head down,” Miller said. “You could see his body posture and tell it wasn’t fun for him.”

Miller said that while he agrees that teachers should be allowed a mask break, students also should be allowed one and not be afraid to take one.

“They should not be shamed like that little boy,” he said. “I felt sorry for him and I think if we can all put our heads together to come up with a solution, that would be good for our kids.”

Miller said he had photos of a GIPS school administrator, on two different occasions, that show him not wearing a mask. He questioned the board on why the administrator was allowed to ignore the COVID-19 protocols and not wear a mask.

In her report given later in the board meeting, Superintendent Tawana Grover said the situaton needs to be addressed.

“Some building leaders do not model proper adherence to the protocols,” she said. “That came up in the (staff) survey (on the COVID-19 protocols), too, so that is something where we are going to have to figure out what is going on in that particular area.”

Chad Keezer also spoke to the board about concerns he has with the district’s mask policy and its policy banning visiting fans from opposing teams at sporting events. He said with its renovations, Memorial Stadium has 1,600 visitors seats and that visiting fans should be able to properly social distance.

“Do you guys think that this community honestly agrees with you guys to not allow visitors in?” Keezer asked the board. “I am not just talking football. We have basketball and wrestling coming up. We have more than enough room in the brand-new stadium to have 500 visitors spaced 6 feet apart. We have more room than just four individuals per player. I think you need to look at this again and try to figure something out. This isn’t right.”

Board President Bonnie Hinkle said that the visiting fans policy is something GIPS has been working on since the start of the school year. She said after the first game, the district talked to Westside about what it could do for their fans.

“We were very close to finding a solution and then the threats of violence on social media came forward,” Hinkle said. “So at that time, it was no longer about our COVID response, but about how we protect our staff, students and fans. In consultation with GIPD, even if the threats were idle, we cannot not pay attention to them.”

Hinkle said GIPS currently is considering whether to allow visiting fans at the home game against Norfolk, but will wait until after this weekend to have the necessary information to make a decision.

Lacy Beard also spoke to the board during public comment Thirsday night.. She claimed that Grover was spotted at the Aksarben Stock Show, where the Central District Health Department reported COVID-19 exposure, amongst a large group of people, not practicing proper social distancing.

Beard asked the board why the superintendent was not quarantined due to exposure at Aksarben when other staff members were told to quarantine when exposed.

“Yes, Dr. Grover was at the Aksarben event, but it was because she was working due to the work we are doing with both CHI (Health) and Aksarben,” Hinkle said. “She was the only person there with a face mask on.”

Seedling Mile parent Joan Sabott also spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting Thursday night. She, however, differed from the other parents who spoke as she supported GIPS’ mandatory mask policy.

Sabott said she is committed to wearing a mask and expects her children to do the same. The only reason she chose to send her children back to in-person learning, as opposed to enrolling them in virtual school, she said, was the mask policy.

“Critical health experts view mask wearing as one of the best ideas we have in fighting COVID and there is rock-solid data to support this,” Sabott said. “My son wears a mask to school and it is 85% protective when combined with social distancing. That is just him wearing a mask. If the student next to him also is wearing a mask, it goes up to more than 90%. Health experts believe that if everyone wore a mask, we would reduce it (COVID rate) to nearly zero in eight weeks.”

Sabott also took issue with claims made by the other parents at the school board meeting that masks are ineffective. She said there are no credible, peer-reviewed studies to support that statement.

“My concern is that there are people in our community who are using their power to persuade local businesses on masks and push schools to create optional mask policies,” Sabott said. “The unsubstantiated narratives out there on social media are worrisome, anti-intellectual and manipulative. Masks work.”

Sabott said that COVID numbers are rising locally and nationally, yet people still are fighting to make masks optional. She encouraged the GIPS board to maintain its mandatory mask policy.

The GIPS board took no formal action Thursday night in regard to its mask policy.

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