Bonneville Joint School District 93’s decision last week to mandate masks was not one without controversy as hundreds of individuals within the district’s community provided both positive and negative input about the decision.
On Monday, district leaders held a Facebook Live Superintendent Chat with District 93 Families to discuss the mandate. The video has received more than 3,000 views and 500 comments up until Tuesday afternoon.
Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme reaffirmed the district’s decision citing the high transmission rate of COVID-19 bringing the district into high-risk status of its COVID-19 response plan. The threshold for moving into this phase is 50 new reported cases within a week.
“I believe as a public school district, we need to listen to and follow public health guidance,” Woolstenhulme said during the video. “None of us are infectious disease experts, but there are infectious disease experts in our local health department and our state Department of Health and Welfare and at the national level. At some point it really becomes somewhat reckless for us as a public school district to continue to not follow that public health guidance.”
In August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
District 93 was reporting more than 50 new cases per week in the prior two weeks before implementing the mask mandate. Woolstenhulme explained to families that the district wanted to be sure that it was at a high-risk status for a continued period of time before requiring masks.
Several individuals asked if the reported cases metric the district is using is the most accurate method of evaluating COVID-19 transmission. Cases are reported on a weekly basis and the district will wait anywhere from two to seven days after an infection before adding it to the data.
Woolstenhulme said he wasn’t a fan of this method because of the delay between reports and infections, but it is consistent with reporting methods from the CDC and local health agencies. The district could consider adding in an active case rate metric for the future but he acknowledged staff will always be playing catch up because cases are almost never reported on the date of infection.
Other questions regarding if the district could implement mask mandates at individual schools rather than across the district and the district’s plan for cases among athletic teams.
If the district’s mask and quarantine policy cause an athletic team to be unable to field a team, games may have to be canceled, Woolstenhulme said during the video.
Masks mandates on a school level was a possibility the board did not consider much when it approved the response plan, Woolstenhulme said during the video. Board members decided to enforce it districtwide because of how often students interact with others from different schools. Additionally, staff members including bus drivers and substitute teachers are interacting with students from multiple schools.
Heath Jackson, district executive director of planning and personnel, said during the video that it is difficult to attract people to jobs because of the low pay that is offered. Part of the district’s decision to require masks includes keeping staff members from contracting COVID-19 to avoid even more staffing issues.
“I wish (the pay) was higher,” Jackson said during the video. “We received funding from the state to provide wages to substitutes and our classified paraprofessionals and, unfortunately, that’s not a very high amount of money that comes and we rely on the supplemental levy to offset that.”
Woolstenhulme followed up Jackson’s comment and explained the district has to use additional state funding to increase substitute wages by early December which only gives the district one pay period to increase wages for substitute teachers.
“There was no way we could significantly increase substitute wages for a month,” Woolstenhulme said during the video.
While the mask mandate is in place, students will not be suspended or sent home if they do not wear masks under the district’s plan. The district is asking families to let their children’s teachers know if they choose not to comply with the mandate.
Students who are exposed to COVID-19 at school and are not wearing masks or do not have immunity will be quarantined from school for five days from exposure and after receiving a negative COVID-19 test. Students who do not receive a negative test will be quarantined from school for 14 days from the date of exposure.
District communications and public relations manager Samantha Williams asked families to be kind to each other and district employees regardless of their stance on masks.
“We love these kids in our district,” Williams said during the video. “We want what’s exactly best for them. These are not easy decisions to make and I know by watching this executive team and teachers, they’re working tirelessly to educate your children and we want to keep our schools open.”