In the face of students’ lackluster response to the current face coverings requirement within the Challis School District, board members chose to loosen the rule, among others, in their COVID-19 response plan at a special Oct. 21 meeting.

“If we’re not going to punish the students, we should not say required, period,” board Chairman Brett Plummer said about the language in the response plan. The will now say coverings are encouraged in the yellow phase and strongly encouraged in the orange phase of the district’s plan.

Board members also chose to strike language that said the district would switch to a hybrid schedule if it entered the orange phase, citing recent information from Eastern Idaho Public Health officials that said face coverings are the best way to slow the virus.

Superintendent Lani Rembelski said the problem the district faces is while students are required to wear face coverings in the yellow phase of the plan, which the district is currently under, there’s no real punishment if masks aren’t worn.

They can’t be sent to detention because that would make them congregate in one room, she said. Everyone in attendance at the meeting agreed sending students home for not wearing a covering is too extreme.

“I believe their education is worth more than masks,” said teacher Talia Erickson, who was among several staff members and parents at the meeting.

Rembelski said the point of requiring coverings is to ensure face-to-face learning can happen. If students are sent home for not wearing a mask, it defeats the whole purpose, she said.

Another problem with requiring masks, Plummer said, is it takes time out of teachers’ day to enforce the rules. Forcing masks on students basically turns teachers into police, he said, which means they can’t fulfill their teaching obligations.

The biggest issue is with high school students, according to Rembelski and High School Principal Kari Alexander. While elementary and junior high students seem to have no problem listening to teachers when it comes to covering their faces, Alexander said the older students remain stubborn on the matter.

Alexander said some mornings she hands out as many as 30 disposable masks to students who didn’t arrive at school with a mask. Many of the masks she hands out end up in the trash, unused. This is a big problem, according to Rembelski, as a high coronavirus case count within the district could force a return to remote learning. A contributing factor, she said, is the lack of support face coverings get in the community.

Custer County was under a mask mandate on the day of the school board meeting, as it has been for several weeks. While Rembelski wore a mask at last week’s meeting, as did school district Clerk Kim Williams, high school Principal Kari Alexander and board member Janiel Parkinson; Plummer and board member Trish Farr did not wear masks in the board meeting. Trustee Jim Chamberlain participated by phone. Trustee Kate Taylor was absent.

Eleven people were in the audience at the meeting and five of those people wore masks while six did not.

Rembelski and board members reiterated slowing the spread of COVID-19 starts at home. If the parents aren’t willing to require their children wear masks, they said, there isn’t much they can do beyond changing the plan.

Board members voted 2-1 in favor of the changes, with Farr voting no. Plummer, as chairman, didn’t vote.