COMMERCIAL-NEWS | ROBERT TOMLINSON - Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education Trustee Ben Karle discusses student quarantine data during a discussion on masks at Monday’s board meeting.

TR school board split on masks, some parents much less so

THREE RIVERS — Masks and mandates were once again the topic du jour at Monday’s Three Rivers Community Schools Board of Education meeting.

While the topic was discussed by board members at decent length, no official action was taken on anything regarding requiring mask wearing in Three Rivers schools. The six board members in attendance appeared to be split on the idea of a mask mandate for a number of different reasons, while the few parents and community members that attended and spoke at Monday’s meeting were vehemently against the idea.

The discussion, one of perhaps many in the coming weeks and months, comes as COVID-19 infections in the school district reached 16, dating back to the start of the school year on Aug. 31. All but one case this year has come from either Three Rivers High School or Three Rivers Middle School. The latest two positive cases came from a student at the high school and a staff member at the middle school.

In the 2020-21 school year, the 16th reported case in the district came on Nov. 18, 2020, with only one case reported between Sept. 3 and Sept. 28 that year.

In new data presented by Trustee Ben Karle to the board Monday, 197 students and one teacher have had to be quarantined this school year already due to being deemed a close contact to a positive case. Of those quarantines, according to the data, only three students have become a positive case themselves during their initial quarantine.

During discussion, Karle noted what he called the “alarming” increase in cases compared to last school year, reiterating his support for a mask mandate in the district.

“These numbers, to me, are pretty darn alarming. We have no vaccine mandate, no mask mandate, no social distancing, and yet our kids are in school every day,” Karle said. “I know others may disagree with me, and I understand that, but the goal is the same: Keep kids in school so they can learn, go to sports, go to prom, they can do all that stuff that we want them to do that we all had the experience to do.”

Karle said he was worried by the trendline if more students get infected with COVID, and said he’s also worried about the effects of COVID on others.

“I know there’s a lot of talk about, kids don’t get sick, and that is great news. They’re not getting as sick as adults, but those kids go home to adults and they may live with grandparents, and a lot of our families don’t have the resources,” Karle said. “I’m extremely concerned, especially when we go off of data on this.”

Board Vice President Linda Baker said she was glad that there is a small percentage of students getting seriously ill, but because kids are part of the “transmission chain,” the virus could continue to spread.

“If we had a school bus crash every month and five kids got killed, would everybody be having a fit about it? Heavens, yes,” Baker said. “This is a matter of public health, it’s a way for us to finally be done. I’m as sick as anyone of wearing a mask, and it’s becoming wearing on everybody, but infections are continuing to spread because they’re allowed to do so.”

Conversely, Trustee Melissa Bliss argued against mask mandates, saying because middle schoolers and high schoolers are the majority of cases in the district and have the option to get the COVID-19 vaccine, they would “have the same choice and opinion on whether to wear a mask.” Later, she said the board should take into account the “emotional angle,” and not just the physical effects, when it comes to students and COVID-19.

“Everyone’s aware it takes an emotional toll on our kids, on our teachers, on our parents, and that’s just as important as whether or not I catch a contagious virus, which I don’t think is limited to those that have a vaccine available to them,” Bliss said.

Board President Erin Nowak said even with the district’s mitigation strategies last year not being mandated, teachers are still trying to mitigate the virus as much as possible with social distancing and other strategies.

“They are encouraging students to wear masks, nobody’s getting docked or getting treated differently because they’re wearing a mask,” Nowak said. “They’re having these discussions in school, letting them know what the options are.”

Trustee Kevin Hamilton argued against a mask mandate as well, saying schools are in a stage “where it should be a choice” whether to mask up or not.

“I feel that if people want to wear the mask, they can wear a mask. If you don’t, don’t. Who are we to say that,” Hamilton said. “We try to put mitigations in place to keep kids safe, but we’re at the stage of the game now where it should be a choice. Earlier on, we didn’t know much about it, and this is where we’re at.”

Superintendent Ron Moag said school building administrators is continuing to do contact tracing once they’re made aware of positive cases, adding that “kids aren’t getting in school, they’re getting it outside of school, but they’re contagious while they’re in school.”

Parents and community members who spoke during public comment were all against the idea of a mask mandate, with some strongly requesting the board not implement a mask mandate and questioning Karle and Baker on their positions. Some of the parents and community members also railed against the local health department’s quarantine mandate for close contacts, with one parent attempting to compare the mandate, and school staff “following orders” because of it, to the Holocaust.

Board members said they would continue to look at data regarding quarantines at future meetings.

In other business…

  • Nowak, during board member comment, read a letter from Moag announcing the superintendent has decided to resign at the end of the 2021-22 school year “after much thought and reflection and devoting 35 years of my professional life to public education.” Moag has been the superintendent at TRCS since 2018.
  • Nowak announced Board Secretary Anne Riopel expressed a desire over the weekend to resign from the school board. No official action was taken, as board members wanted to give her a few days to consider her desire more thoroughly and make a decision that’s “more level-headed.” Board Treasurer Julia Awe added, in communication with Riopel, the secretary “would appreciate that time.” Action on Riopel’s potential resignation is set for their next meeting on Oct. 4.
  • The board approved employment contracts for a number of new school staff.

Robert Tomlinson can be reached at 279-7488 ext. 23 or robert@threeriversnews.com.

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