School board hears public input on mask mandate


HURON — Parents, teachers and medical professionals shared concerns and views about the masking mandate implemented in Huron Schools effective Sept. 7 during Monday night’s Huron School Board meeting.

Prior to allowing members of the public who wanted to speak, School Board President Garret Bischoff explained that the district’s COVID-19 contingency plan was put in place after two public hearings held June 14 and 28.

People were invited to the podium to share their views, beginning with those against the mask mandate.

Ashley Armstrong, who spoke as an eighth-grade teacher and a parent, said the decision to require masking was made without input from parents, teachers or students.

“As an educator, every day it is necessary to evaluate students ability to learn,” Armstrong said, adding that the mandate hinders some students, especially those with sensory difficulties. “Have any of you sat at a desk trying to see the teacher through four shields in front of you or wear a mask for seven and a half hours a day? If you experience those things, you will have a very different view of it.

“I encourage you to talk to parents, teachers and students,” she said. “At no point have parents been asked about masking children. Students with sensory issues are bothered by these things every day.”

Dan Copeland told the board he has gathered 162 names on a petition of parents opposed to making students wear masks.

“We know the last Friday in September is when the government takes count of students,” he said. “If the mandate is not lifted, we parents will withhold our students that day so they can’t be counted. The district says we believe in the ideals on which the constitution is based. What are the ideals? Individual liberty.”

Copeland said the danger of COVID-19 is not hospitalization or the mortality rate.

“The danger is fear,” he said. “A demonic fear dividing our country. Fear is evil. Forcing people to wear masks is perpetuating fear. Suppress the spirit of fear. Live boldly and teach our children to live boldly and courageously.”

Ray Cardona said he spoke to the Board last year when there were both high emotions and frustrations on both sides. “I conceded to let well enough alone because everything got so heated,” he said.

Cardona said when his son was recently in the doctor’s office wearing his mask, his oxygen level fell into the 80s and he was told to lower his mask and breathe through his nose.

“I feel like we need leadership,” Cardona said. “We are deferring to the COVID task force, the task force defers to the CDC. I’m asking you guys, look at the numbers and research yourself. They are just recommending it. I ask you to consider what you’re doing. It’s impacting a lot of people.”

One man, who did not give his name, told the Board he was a refugee from Burma “where I had no choice. I came to free country, now I experience something different.

“I love this community, please reconsider your policy,” he said. “I believe parents that don’t want their children to wear masks, let them have their choices too. I know other parents not able to come (to the Board meeting) because of language barrier.

“I am not scared of sickness or disease,” he added. “I grew up with no doctor, no nurses. Now I’m scared and fearful of this situation. Please listen to the people’s voices.”

Doug Ramsell, a Beadle County Commissioner and a member of the Beadle County Task Force, said he appreciates the viewpoints of those who spoke to the board. “I’m not here to argue, I’m here to clarify how we come to the decisions we come to,” he said.

“What we look at is the data, and not all the data from the CDC, although that comes into play,” Ramsell said. “We look at Beadle County and the Huron area. We understand people are against the masking mandate. I can almost guarantee you, if it was reversed, it we were in green, there would be just as many here on the other side. That’s how divided we are.”

Ramsell said the task force makes recommendations with one goal in mind — to keep students and staff and community safe.

“We don’t want to hinder students,” Ramsel said. “This is the best defense that we have available. Once the numbers start going up, they go up fast. Then we’re reacting, not proacting.”

Ramsell said the number of positive cases of COVID began rising in this region in August. “They’re not rising fast, but hopefully what we do will keep the numbers at bay. As of today, Beadle County has the lowest cases of any county on the east side of the state. We want to keep it that way.

“The numbers are not way up there yet, but they’re climbing,” he added. “We don’t want to see them explode, for the safety of our students, staff and community. We know it’s difficult. We pondered that and we discussed that. I’m a firm believer, personally, that masking works.”

Erick Larson, CEO at Huron Regional Medical Center, said he wants to let the School Board know he is in total support of the mask mandate.

“I sympathize with students, we want them to have a good experience,” Larson said. “As an organization we are significantly stressed with resources. I have six employees out for COVID. We know that with masking and washing hands, we have a better chance of weathering the storm. We do think they work, they are evidence-based. We believe that masking works.”

A former National Guardsman said he was part of the group preparing for the last public health threat, which was ebola. “This effort is to prevent another COVID spike,” he said. “I wholeheartedly agree with a requirement for masks. Communities that mandate masks had reduction in infection rates. We have to put out masking mandates.”

He said he understands parents and teachers concerned with making sure students keep their masks on throughout the day. “My son has autism and struggles with a mask,” he said. “It is a distraction. The fact is that everything distracts him. I am totally for the mask mandate.”

Superintendent Kraig Stienhoff thanked those who addressed the Board.

“I appreciate the passion and honest feedback,” Stienhoff said. “It’s a difficult situation and scenario. I have 3,300 people under my care as superintendent. I know it’s a distraction — I hate the masks, it makes my glasses fog. However, when the medical field is telling me the best scenario is to wear masks, I have to balance uncomfortableness with masks versus safety for all. I can’t give an answer that will make everyone pleased.”

In his Superintendent’s report, Stienhoff said the district is making plans to expand its early childhood program and plans to utilize McKinley School, where Head Start now meets, as a new junior kindergarten site.

Because of this plan, the Head Start lease agreement will not be renewed at the end of this school term. The district also plans to offer a new health-related course in the fall of 2022.

In other action the Board:
• Approved 14 new hires, four resignations and eight new contracts.
• Congratulated students named to the 2021 Homecoming Royalty Court.
• Expressed thanks to several organizations and groups, including Farmers & Merchants Bank for donuts shared with the Buchanan K/1 Center Staff and HRMC for 200 boxes of Kleenex donated to Buchanan School to get through the cold and flu season.
• Approved the use of Tiger Stadium for two Huron Junior Athletics football games on Oct. 14.
• Approved a request by the Huron Area Concert Association for use of the HHS Auditorium on Saturday for a concert.

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