Douglas County school board

On a 4-3 vote, the Douglas County school board voted early Wednesday morning to largely end the district's mask order.

Driven by a newly elected majority, the Douglas County school board passed a resolution to largely end its mask mandate early Wednesday morning, closing a months-long saga that included lawsuits and the dissolution of a regional health department.

After a seven-hour meeting that stretched past midnight, the board voted to first change its policy guiding infectious disease response and then approved the resolution hollowing out its face-covering requirement. The latter vote still allows masking to some degree in some circumstances “to support individuals with unique conditions and circumstances in a manner that impacts the fewest number of other individuals as possible.” A successful lawsuit filed by the district in October sought a mask order in order to protect educational opportunities for medically at-risk students.

The vote on the resolution fell squarely along new-versus-old member lines: The four newly seated members voted to end the mandate as it stands, while the three incumbent members voted no. The vote was greeted with cheers from the audience.

The new members said their votes represented the will of the county, that students needed to be unmasked to help their learning and that parents should have the ultimate choice in what their students should wear.

The masking resolution directs the district’s superintendent to end the face-covering order and implement the document’s language. It’s effective beginning Wednesday, officials said, just hours after the board passed it. Board member Susan Meek said that such a swift implementation would introduce “chaos,” given that the district will have to work with individual families on accommodations. She attempted to push the implementation back until January, but the amendment was rejected 4-3, along new-versus-old member lines.

Board member David Ray expressed repeated concern about students who will need masking accommodations and how the swift implementation will affect them. He said he was afraid of segregating or bullying medically at-risk students. Ray read comments from students raising concerns about impacts for those students who will need to wear masks and have masked peers around them.

He called the resolution “reckless” and said it would do harm.

Board president Mike Peterson said he flatly opposed bullying and that he trusted staff to successfully work with families to institute accommodations.

The initial draft of the change to the infectious disease policy moves guidance of any infectious diseases issues to the school board and through the superintendent, “in consultation with the Douglas County Health Department and its references to available disease data, with an emphasis on Douglas County-specific data.” An amendment later added in the state Department of Public Health and Environment as well as other “applicable” agencies.

Though a mask order was still in place during the meeting, four of the seven members of the board were unmasked, as were several members of the district’s administration and much of the audience.

The infectious disease policy served as a foundation when the district decided in August to keep a mask order for some students and staff, after the Douglas County Commission voted to opt-out of a face-covering requirement issued by the Tri-County Board of Health. Tri-County then issued another order requiring masks in schools, prompting Douglas County to pull out of the agency and launch its own. The county’s new health department then ended the mandate. That, in turn, led to the district suing the new department, arguing that a mask mandate was needed to protect medically at-risk students’ access to education. A judge issued a temporary ruling supporting the district.

In early November, after the election, the county and its new health department ended its order, acknowledging that the district would soon have four new members — all of whom ran on opposing masking.

At each of those turns, which have been taken regularly since August, Douglas County residents at public hearings have almost unanimously spoken against mask orders, both in schools and countywide. Though opponents remained in the majority Tuesday night, there was a larger pro-mask contingent than in previous meetings.

Those opposed to mask requirements echoed what had been said before. Many questioned the efficacy of masks and said COVID-19 largely does not negatively effect children. Others said they wanted the school board to return masking to a parental choice, rather than a district edict.

“The point is, we should be free to do what we believe is in the best interest of our children,” a parent of a charter school student said, “and not feel retaliation from administrators or school officials for those beliefs.”

Students spoke both for and against masks, and members of the audience took turns cheering and waving flags as opponents and supporters spoke. One woman, a mask supporter, wore a T-shirt with “This is preventable” written on it and hung a flag from the lectern as she spoke.

Several supporters acknowledged that everyone was tired of the pandemic but said that masks have been demonstrated to be effective and that COVID-19 does effect children. Amid the latest surge, which has been sustained to varying degrees since August, elementary-aged children have had the highest rates of COVID-19 spread, and health officials have said that transmission within schools is spreading back into homes.

“My health and safety needs to be put first. It is not a matter of freedom,” one student said. “It is not a matter of anything to do with the constitution. It is a matter of keeping our community safe and keeping our community healthy.”

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