May 18 board meeting report: Masks to be required for the remainder of the school year, audience members voice opinions

Community+members+gather+outside+the+Belmont+administrative+building+with+signs+urging+the+board+to+repeal+its+mask+mandate+before+the+May+18+board+meeting.

Allisa Pandit

Community members gather outside the Belmont administrative building with signs urging the board to repeal its mask mandate before the May 18 board meeting.

Allisa Pandit, Staff Contributor

Update: On the night of May 19th, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds signed a law banning mask mandates throughout the state, effectively making masks optional for the remainder of the school year. The board meeting detailed below occurred the day before.

In a 4 to 3 vote at Tuesday’s board meeting, the school board ruled that the current mask mandate will remain in place for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year.

As an increasing amount of students and staff get vaccinated and the CDC announces new regulations, community members voiced concerns on whether masks should be required at school.

Leading up to the meeting, a petition named “Making Masks Optional in the Pleasant Valley School System” circulated around the district. It gained over 600 signatures opposing the mask mandate, but others rebutted that more students need to be vaccinated before the district lifts the mask mandate. The question remains: is it safe for students to be unmasked?

District superintendent Brian Strusz began the session by presenting the reasoning behind this particular meeting: the Iowa Department of Public Health issued an announcement last week urging schools to make masks optional. While keeping recent CDC guidelines, current COVID mandates and vaccine rates in mind, Strusz began an open discussion between board members. 

Board members discussed that the Scott County area has moved out from a high to a substantial level of cases in the area; cases have declined, but the threat is still prominent. Strusz placed emphasis on the idea that students must be the district’s number one priority, as an estimated 92% of staff are already vaccinated.

“We want kids to be in school, in a consistent process, the rest of this year. That is something we have stretched over the entire year,” Strusz said. “How do we stay consistent? How do we provide opportunities for kids? And again, I know all throughout the year people may not have agreed with decisions that are made, but we’ve tried to make them [align] what our goals have been all along.”

Soon after members discussed HIPPA laws, recent COVID data and neighboring district regulations, the floor was open to the audience. Dr. Nikhil Wagle, president of the school board, voiced rules for the open floor: each individual was given three minutes to express their opinion to the board. Individuals were not permitted to engage in discourse with others in the audience or interrupt others. In total, around 30 audience members shared their opinions on this topic.

Teachers Marlise Bosman and Abby Meuser at Hopewell Elementary set this portion of the meeting in motion. “We are the presidents this year of the PVEA [teachers association], but we just wanted to represent teachers tonight. We did a survey over the weekend just to see where people were at.” This survey of over 250 staff members resulted in 75% of teachers wanting masks mandated and 25% wanting them to be optional. 

On the contrary, junior high teacher Mike Duncan was upset that the teachers union does not represent all teachers across the district. “We talk all about inclusiveness now but my goodness we’re starting to become exclusive. And it’s sad. So as a person who represents himself only, because he’s not part of the union, there are others like us. I won’t speak for them, but know that there are others who would like to be heard. I also think that this isn’t an easy job, especially today. Try not to make it harder.”

Duncan disclosed why other staff members are in support of going mask optional: “We’re teachers, and we teach a curriculum, and we’re worried about taking masks off the kids and how that’s going to change the next 12 days. And as I look at the next 12 days, taking the mask off kids, I get to see their smiles,” he shared. 

A father of two students at PV questioned the authority of requiring a mask in school: “If this was truly a pandemic, every one of us in this room would know a family member, a coworker, or a neighbor who died of the COVID, not got a little sick,” he shared. “So to call this a pandemic at this stage of the game is fictitious at best. We’ve had legislators in session for over a year, if they wanted to give you the authority to put masks on us, they’d have passed a law, giving you the right to have assets. Y’all don’t have that right.”

PV juniors Raksha Kumar and Tanisha Nanisetty, the only students to speak that night, also shared their perspective. “We wanted to come up and speak to have a student perspective. We’ve heard what parents think is right, but as students we have spent hours at school wearing masks and taking necessary precautions. Very little of our student body is currently vaccinated, so the CDC vaccine guidelines do not necessarily apply to our school,” Nanisetty said. 

A group of 30 anonymous physician-parents also expressed their thoughts through a lengthy letter to the school board. These physicians rebutted many claims made by the majority anti-mask audience: “The implementation of masks, distancing, and quarantining have been evidence based and data supported. We want to strongly encourage the PVCSD to continue to require (not recommend) face masks for the remaining days of the school year, which as we stated, is only 12 more days,” the group voiced.

After reviewing three hours of discourse between the audience and board members, the board voted in favor of a mask mandate through the remainder of the school year. People who opposed the decision called for re-evaluations of the school board members to be put in place immediately. 

The next school board meeting will be held at 6 pm on Monday, May 24 at the district’s Belmont office, and will also be live-streamed.