More than 50 residents, including Rep. Chad Christensen, R-Iona, attended Bonneville Joint School District 93’s board meeting at Thunder Ridge High School on Wednesday night, the most recent after the district implemented a masking requirement.
“I hope you consider (ending) this mask mandate,” Christensen told the board. “I believe it needs to end.”
The board did not take any formal action to change its COVID-19 response plan. Superintendent Scott Woolstenhulme said he expects the district to move back into the moderate-risk phase of the plan Monday after a period of lower case counts, ending the requirement for students and staff to wear masks but strongly encouraging it.
Christensen said the district should end the masking requirement due to the low mortality from COVID-19 among younger populations. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 605 COVID-19 deaths among people 0-18 years old in the U.S. since January 2020. Nearly 713,000 total people have died in the U.S. from COVID-19.
“There are no Idaho deaths with children under 18 years old two years into this pandemic if you want to call it that,” Christensen said.
In September the CDC recommended “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.”
In late September there were nearly 1,700 child COVID-19 cases reported in Idaho, which was a record, the Post Register reported.
Christensen suggested that the board do nothing and take no mitigation or preventive strategies for public health, leaving such decisions up to parental choice.
“I don’t believe school boards should dictate medical mandates upon students and their families,” Christensen said.
It was the Idaho Legislature who granted the authority to state school boards to implement public health measures to prevent the spread of contagious or infectious disease during the 2021 legislative session.
House Bill No. 67, which was signed by Gov. Brad Little on March 3, was intended to remove the authority for local health boards to enact community preventive measures of disease transmission including mask mandates. The new law leaves those decisions to be made by the governor, the State Board of Education and school boards. Christensen voted in favor of the bill when it was read on the House floor on Feb. 11.
“There was a lot of comment about (how) these kinds of decisions should be local. They should be with the local boards,” Board Chairman Chad Dance said.
Woolstenhulme said the primary reason the masking requirement is included in the plan is to protect others, specifically, the district’s staff in older populations, rather than the individual wearing the mask. A Tiebreaker Elementary teacher died in September and another teacher has been hospitalized for several weeks, he said.
“I hope and pray that’s the only time we go through that but the reality is I’m afraid we’re going to see more staff members going through hospitalizations,” Woolstenhulme said. “That’s the personal responsibility I feel when we aren’t doing everything I believe we can to try and protect the health and safety of our kids and our teachers.”
Most people in attendance expressed opposition of the district’s masking requirement in the high-risk phase of its response plan. On Thursday afternoon, the board’s YouTube video of the meeting had nearly 700 views.
There were some people at the meeting who expressed their support for the board’s masking requirement, including Dr. Michael Lemon, a general burn and trauma surgeon at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center and a parent of five children enrolled at the district.
“Earlier this year at (EIRMC) we did not have a single pediatric hospital admission nor a single pediatric ICU admission of a child due to COVID-19,” Lemon said. “I can tell you that’s not the case anymore.”
The Post Register reported on Oct. 8 that a recent survey sent by the district revealed a slim majority of parents who responded, in which there were more than 3,600, approved the district’s masking requirement in the high-risk phase of its response plan.
The district’s COVID-19 case trends have followed last year’s pattern, with a spike in cases in mid to late September and a drop off in October. Woolstenhulme said the difference this year is case numbers are three to four times higher than they were last year, which makes him concerned with November and December, when the district hit its high number of cases for the 2020 -2021 school year.
District 93 is not taking any disciplinary action against students who do not comply with the masking requirement of the plan. Students and visitors on school grounds are free to not wear masks if they so choose. Board members said the reasoning for this was to respect others and their beliefs while trying to keep kids in school.
“Is it even right to call this a mandate,” said board member Greg Calder. “We are trying to be respectful and I get it — some people may think we have not handled that balance correctly but we’re trying our best and it’s a difficult balance to strike.”