Garfield Re-2 board members try to remove mask mandates
Protecting civil liberties was the main argument behind a new proposal to eliminate most COVID-19 protocols within the Garfield Re-2 school district.
Just after Garfield Re-2 Assistant Superintendent Lisa Pierce reported a post-holiday quarantine increase to the board Jan. 12, board members Tony May and Britton Fletchall proposed doing away with mask mandates and any mention of vaccination sites on district newsletters.
“I’d like to strike that from the newsletter, because that’s on Garfield County’s (website) — they’re taking care of that,” May said. “So if you want to get vaccinated, there are places that will vaccinate you in a heartbeat. We don’t need to be telling people that any longer.”
Fletchall and May, who both ran campaigns opposing COVID-19 protocols and mandates, are new board members who were officially sworn in late last year.
“I took an oath to defend the Constitution,” May said. “Nowhere in the Constitution does it say the school board can take away the civil liberties of anyone.”
The proposal comes as COVID-19-related absences have recently surged among district students and staff. According to district data, one-day student absences spiked from 34 to 161 between Dec. 16 to Jan. 10, while one-day totals for staff absences spiked from a high of 18 before the holidays to up to 40 since Jan. 3.
“It is about civil liberties for us. So much of it,” Fletchall said. “I want people to make their own choices in life. But I also understand there’s another side of it. We’ve got to keep the school open, we’ve got to have teachers showing up.”
Staff absentees have so far yielded 51 positive cases and have caused rates to fluctuate considerably among the district’s 10 schools, with some experiencing 17% to 21% of staff absent. Last week in fact saw Highland Elementary School in Rifle experience a staff shortage of 25%.
“This week we had to shut down our Highland Elementary preschool program because 65% of preschool staff were absent,” Pierce said.
Increases in COVID-19 cases have created issues in filling substitute teacher positions.
Since Jan. 3, Garfield Re-2’s substitute fill rate has fluctuated from 69% to 80%. Pierce said school districts typically consider a good fill rate at 85% or higher.
Despite there currently being 63 confirmed COVID-19 student cases, however, the district estimates keeping people wearing masks throughout the district has helped it avert 728 quarantines, Pierce said.
“We have serious staffing shortages, and student absences are threatening our mission to stay in-person learning,” she said. “Each school administrator and their leadership has been asked to determine, daily, if they have the capacity to safely and adequately continue with face-to-face education.”
Board member Jason Shoup expressed concern over teachers leaving due to safety, referring to the district as “critically understaffed.”
“If 25% of our staff don’t feel safe at work, then what the heck are we going to do?” he said.
Since the start of COVID-19, the Garfield Re-2 district has implemented safety measures recommended by Garfield Public Health and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Per those guidelines, the district’s COVID-19 task force used internal data to implement a universal mask mandate Sept. 27, 2021, and has since not required quarantines of staff and students unless it’s under “high exposure” circumstances.
This mechanism has since triggered major contention among contingents of disgruntled district voters and parents opposing mask mandates and most COVID-19 protocols. In fall 2021, some parents submitted a cease-and-desist letter, ordering the district to remove its mask mandate.
At the Jan. 12 school board meeting, parents argued the mandate has continued to exacerbate mental health issues among their children, while teachers continue to leave the district due to their opposition to COVID-19 protocols.
Fellow parent Michelle Williams showed support for removing the mandate.
“We just have to take our kids out of masks,” she said. “The mental health issues are astronomical.”
Instead, the district is trying to determine what recommendations it actually has to follow in achieving its goal of maintaining in-person learning without having to quarantine. It’s currently analyzing what nearby school districts are doing for further guidance.
Meanwhile, Garfield County commissioners on Monday discussed passing a formal resolution allowing local school districts to make their own decisions in relation to COVID-19 protocols.
In addition to seeing what neighbors are doing, the district is sending out a survey to staff and parents inquiring their thoughts on future COVID-19 protocols. There was no action taken at the Jan. 12 meeting regarding COVID-19 mask mandates or protocols.
Reporter Ray K. Erku can be reached at 612-423-5273 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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