Feb. 22 board meeting report: Audience members voice concerns on mask mandate and lunch dividers

Alyce Brown, Staff Contributor

The school board fielded concerns from parents and community members about the district’s mask mandate and cardboard lunch table dividers at the Feb. 22 board meeting. 

The week prior to the meeting, social media posts sparked controversy surrounding the fact that elementary and junior high students could not see those around them while eating lunch due to their new cardboard lunch table dividers. 

District superintendent Brian Strusz addressed the controversy at the beginning of the meeting, saying that the purpose of the dividers is to keep students safe and to minimize the amount of students that have to quarantine if there is a positive case in the lunchroom.

This statement was followed by audience members voicing their concerns. “What is the data that they [lunch dividers] do something?” asked community member Diane Holst. She also questioned the district’s mask mandate, saying “I’m concerned about the masks in general for children…the peer reviewed studies need to come out of what the effects of wearing masks on children are.”

“One of the questions I have is do you think it’s good for the kids?” asked the next audience member to speak, Steve Zimmerman. “I challenge everyone up there to eat in a cardboard box for a week, because that’s what you’re asking our kids to do.” 

He also questioned the district’s COVID decisions, saying “I’ve heard no talk of stair safety. More kids under the age of 15 die falling down the stairs than they do of COVID-19, but I hear no talk of stair safety at schools.” 

These sentiments were echoed by David Zimmerman, a community member who would not wear a mask at the event until instructed to by the school board. He asked the board to “get rid of those dividers because it’s not good for our kids social, mental state,” continuing that “All of this is having a mental impact on them, that none of you have any idea what it’s going to be.”

Strusz responded to the concerns over students’ social and mental wellbeing, saying that the district “just implemented a social, emotional, behavioral program to address the needs of our kids, all kids.” 

The discussion also prompted responses from elementary teachers and administrators in the audience concerning the lunchroom atmosphere. A Riverdale Heights teacher acknowledged that the first day with dividers up was “concerning” for the kids, but said that since then the kids have been “totally fine with it” and the atmosphere has been “very similar to what the cafeteria has been in the past.”

Bridgeview principal Tony Hiatt also added his perspective on the topic, saying that “At the end of the day, we have to make the decision that lands the most physically safe conditions for our kids, based on the best information we have at this time.”

The next school board meeting will be held at 6 pm on Monday, March 22 at the district’s Belmont office, and will also be live-streamed.