By MARK EVANS
Ste. Genevieve R-II Schools will require students to wear masks – at least until the Sept. 21 board of education meeting.
The board called a special meeting last Friday evening to address the face mask issue, as COVID-19 cases continued to grow.
A large crowd attended, even though the meeting was called on fairly short notice and fell on the evening of the Valle Catholic-Ste. Genevieve football game.
Sixteen concerned parents shared their fears, concerns and frustrations, with both supporters and foes of mandatory masking making their voices heard.
In the end, the board members discussed the issue and voted 7-0 to require masks.
However, this was only after Dr. Julie Flieg, superintendent of schools, gave her personal assurance that the policy would be revisited at the Sept. 21 board meeting – and at each monthly meeting, if necessary.
Flieg also stressed that the R-II policy does not require students to wear masks during PE classes, recess or sports practices. All of these have been linked with instances of students suffering health issues and have not been part of the local mandate.
Flieg also noted that all children are not required to wear a mask every minute of the school day, addressing another concern.
The decision was not easy. Flieg’s voice was tinged with emotion as she reminded the attendees that she had children who graduated in 2020 and 2021, whose senior years were largely obliterated by the school shutdown. Some board members did likewise.
The meeting lasted about an hour, 45 minutes, with speakers getting a maximum of five minutes to speak.
Those speaking were Valerie Holifield, Gina Bryant, Amy Rowland, Jimmy Holifield, Lance Meyer, Emily Gegg, Andrew Shummle, Garry Grass, Jerod Barr, Becky Long, Stacey Gegg, Jennifer Cox, Kristi Cleghorn, Rachel Stewart, Sara Greither and Chrissy Gegg. The speakers were divided almost 50-50 between making masks mandatory or optional.
Valerie Holifield and Bryant both told how their children had suffered from anxiety over having to wear masks and how it had affected their personalities.
Others questioned the district’s use of face shields instead of masks, or questioned how effective masks were if worn improperly.
Gary Grass argued that for high-risk children like his, not requiring masks puts them in danger. Kleghorn, a special needs teacher, made the same argument, adding that not having a mask mandate could actually be interpreted as discrimination against high-risk students.
Flieg and Bova’s calls for speakers to be civil were rewarded with many passionate but respectful comments. Several speakers said they did not envy the board members, having to face this situation.
SITUATION IS PERSONAL
Flieg opened the meeting by stressing how difficult the issue is.
“I take this very seriously,” Flieg said. “I am the mother of a 2020 graduate who missed the end of her senior year because of this. She never gets to have senior prom, she never gets to have her last day at school.”
She added that she is also mother of a 2021 graduate, who was quarantined three times last year, despite doing her best to follow CDC protocol.
“So I want you to know this is not easy for me to sit here and have this discussion,” she said. “The past two weeks with kids not having masks have been wonderful. But the most important thing we need to do is keep kids in school – and I don’t know how else to do it right now.”
She said there were 16 positive COVID cases in the district and 18 people in quarantine.
Flieg said she will be keeping in contact with other school districts that are trying various approaches to the issue, to see if another approach might work better. The policy, she said, will be reexamined frequently this school year.
“Everyone up here has either had a child or grandchild who graduated from this school district, or currently has one in this school district, or has been an employee of this school district,” board president David Bova said.
He also shared his own parenting situation.
“I also had a 2020 graduate who missed her prom, her softball season and much, much more.”
GOAL TO KEEP KIDS IN SCHOOL
After the public comment period had ended, the board discussed the issue further.
Bova said his goal “is to have kids safe and to have kids here,” getting live education.
That seemed to be a consensus idea.
“I’d rather see their faces, but it’s more important to me that they’re at school,” Flieg said.
Bova noted that there had been “some heart-wrenching stories told on both sides of this issue,” and that there was “heart-wrenching going on up here” at the board table. He expressed appreciation for all those who shared their thoughts with the board.
He also noted that the state legislature has opted not to take control of the issue, but rather to leave it to local school districts.
“So here we are,” he said. “This is what’s called local control.”