Face masks are not going away for the remainder of the 2020-21 school year in Peoria Unified School District.
With just over two weeks left in the school year, the governing board voted to continue with the current COVID-19 migration strategies. This includes all students, staff and guests on all school and district properties.
Superintendent Jason Reynolds said mitigation procedures will continue to be re-evaluated as the district transitions to summer programming and prepares for the start of the next school year.
In response to Gov. Doug Ducey’s recent executive order that eliminated a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools but allows individual school district governing boards to institute and enforce policies to mitigate against the spread of COVID-19, the district added an agenda item regarding this issue to the school board meeting, April 22.
Initially, a motion was made to make masks optional, but it failed 2-3.
Subsequently, the governing board approved a recommendation from district staff to continue with the current mitigation strategies for the remainder of the school year. Board members David Sandoval, Cory Underhill and Bill Sorensen voted in support of the status quo. Board members Beverly Pingerelli and Rebecca Hill wanted to make mask wearing an option.
The recommendation from the district was based on a number reasons, including current health metrics showing that cases have risen from 65 on April 8 to 90 on April 22, as well as percent positive cases rising from 6% on April 8 to 8% on April 22.
Mr. Reynolds said the federal and county guidelines for schools have not changed.
It is hard to believe that with only 19 days of school left, the district has positioned itself to be able to safely hold high school graduation, 8th grade promotion, end of school year celebrations, concerts and athletics, he said.
“I have received many, many emails from parents and staff who have varying opinions on what we should do for the remainder of this school year. I have met with public health experts who have clearly stated that the federal and county guidelines for schools have not changed and that schools should continue to wear face coverings,” he said. “Therefore our recommendation for the governing board is that we continue to implement our current mitigation strategies that have successfully gotten us to this point. And that includes face coverings to help ensure that our students’ learning for the remaining 19 days and the activities that we have planned are not at risk or negatively impacted.”
Just as the board was divided on the issue of face masks, so too were those who spoke at the board meeting.
Parent Jodi Brackett said she is the one who is responsible for her child’s health, not everyone else, whether it is the government or school system.
“We are in deep trouble not only as a community but as an entire nation if we keep these masks on these kids. They are being suppressed. They will end up wearing these masks from here on out if it is up to some people. This will go on and on,” she said. “People who want to wear masks, go ahead, but do not intimidate or manipulate others if we do not feel the same. Each individual should have a choice.”
Sarah Bartz is a teacher at Ironwood High School. She said that over the last year the academic process has been interrupted several times due to this unpredictable pandemic, and it was during those transitions that kids struggled the most. Removing the mask mandate could greatly disrupt the educational process in a year that already has been filled with so much chaos, Ms. Bartz said.
Removing masks with only two weeks left in the school year would most likely result in an increase of positive cases which will require even more kids to be quarantined and could impact their academic standings in the crucial last weeks of school, she said.
“In December and January we watched as many parents tried to move their children to virtual learning models after the abrupt decision to change previous metrics. Many parents were frustrated. This decision was made after they had already selected in-person learning. Many lost trust in the district and some even went as far as to remove their child and send them to out of district online programs. Removing the mask guideline now would again change those guidelines,” Ms. Bartz said.
Philip Haldiman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @philiphaldiman.