Colorado Springs School District 11 superintendent Michael Thomas addresses attendees at Wednesday's school board meeting.

Colorado Springs School District 11 held its first school board meeting of the new year in front of a packed house Wednesday night amid growing debate over the lifting of a mask mandate and the state of its equity and inclusion department.

The meeting space in the district’s administrative building on North El Paso Street was standing room only, with several attendees listening to the proceeding from the hallway or watching a video transmission in the lobby.

“I have not seen this boardroom filled to capacity in a while,” said board President Parth Melpakam. “It’s good to have our citizens in the room, providing feedback to the board.”

The board typically sets aside 20 minutes for public commentary. But because they were flooded with requests, the time limit was expanded to 40 minutes on Wednesday.

A primary issue among the speakers was the future of the district’s equity and inclusion department. Shortly after three newly elected members assumed their seats on the board, Equity and Inclusion Director Alexis Knox-Miller dissolved the 40-person Equity Leadership Team. The move, Knox-Miller told The Gazette, was a preemptive measure. The new board members – Rev. Al Loma, Sandra Bankes and Lauren Nelson – have all expressed doubts about the department’s efficacy.

Reading a statement from the El Paso/Teller county chapter of the Foundation Against Intolerance and Racism, Joseph Boyle suggested that the previous board was operating on a modified interpretation of the term “equity.” The statement read, in part, that the district’s 2020 equity audit was focused on “race and only race.”

Jen Williamson, a youth minister and D-11 parent who ran for school board in November, said educational equity means making sure every student, regardless of race, has an opportunity to succeed.

“Many of you ran on a platform of improving standardized test scores,” Williamson said. “In D-11, this is the same goal of the equity policy. It is about improving academic performance for all students, which means meeting students where they are, and yes, it means we engage in the sometimes uncomfortable work of talking about race.”

Another issue that inspired impassioned commentary was the absence of a district-wide mask mandate. The district lifted its masking directive in December — about a week before Christmas break — and has not reinstated it despite a recent spike in COVID-19 cases across El Paso County.

Rhonda Heschel, a nurse practitioner, said she is seeing positive coronavirus cases in rapidly increasing numbers.

“When I was at work Monday and Tuesday, we had so many more positives than we’ve ever had,” Heschel said. “Nearly every kid we tested with suspicion of COVID had COVID.”

Jennifer Bertram praised the decision to lift the mask mandate.

“You have no idea how much it means to us parents in the community to remove masks from our children,” Bertram said.

Owen Church, an 8th grader at North Middle School, implored the board to reinstate the mask edict.

“I know a multitude of other kids who are at more risk than I am,” said Church, who has mild asthma. “Because (some students) are not wearing masks, they are in even more danger of harm from COVID.”

Several studies have suggested that COVID rates are lower among children and adolescents than they are among adults. But this may be, at least in part, due to their having "fewer opportunities for exposure" and lower chances of being tested, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Children and adolescents infected with COVID are more apt to be asymptomatic or have "mild, non-specific symptoms," according to the organization.

In a recent communication, Superintendent Michael Thomas warned the district that due to increased COVID-19 numbers among teachers and staff, some schools might have to briefly pivot to remote learning. Thomas elaborated on his statement at Wednesday night’s board meeting, but did not indicate an intent to return to masking.

“We will prioritize keeping our kids in school, knowing that at some point we will have a staffing issue as we’ve had in the past,” Thomas said. When that happens, he said, “we will go into a brief period of remote learning, and then get our students back into school as quickly as possible.”

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