Pierce City school mask policy challenged

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Patrons voice mixed views on strategy

Pierce City school board members were taken to task by patrons for the district’s non-mandatory policy on wearing masks at school, prompting the August board meeting to be moved into the gym, where several dozen patrons could spread out while others addressed the session.

Five patrons spoke during the meeting, mostly stressing the need for a more stringent policy.

Neysa Kleinman took issue with the policy that only encouraged the wearing of masks, when, according to her high school-aged daughter, only about 4 percent of students were doing so. Kleinman feared the lack of direction would result in the disruption of classes earlier than anyone hoped.

“This is not political — it’s a health thing,” Kleinman said. “I feel if you can’t enforce this, what about other rules? For the safety of students and the staff, I feel you ought to relook at the masking policy.”

Charity Rakoski, the district’s former middle school principal who spent 18 years working for the district, whose children still attend Pierce City schools, was even more emphatic.

“I can’t support not requiring masks in any capacity at any time at all,” Rakoski said.

She found the policy that “highly, strongly encouraged” the wearing of masks was failing when most of the faculty were not wearing them, thus sending a mixed message to students.

“My kids want to be here,” she said. “I’m not asking for school to become a crazy mask prison. If [a teacher] is working directly with a student, they should be masked. It’s not a matter of wanting to be scared to live. Maybe it’s a necessary inconvenience. I’d rather see Pierce City had done too much than not done enough.”

Patron Lori Johnson also expressed concern that online courses may not be equivalent to those taken in class. She asked the board to consider making mask wearing mandatory while moving from class to class. Johnson stressed the district’s dress code sets a standard for maintaining a “safe and healthy environment,” which she felt would cover the wearing of masks. She pushed the board to find middle ground.

Patron Sam Goodman said board members may not be completely protected by sovereign immunity through the district’s insurance. If there is a death, he said insurance will only cover the board up to a point, then personal liability comes into play. In case of a trial, he observed juries tend to sympathize with the victims.

After Superintendent Kelli Alumbaugh said the bus director was “encouraging” but not mandated the use of masks, Goodman asked that masks be worn on buses and in hallways. If school was disrupted due to illness, the virtual option had its limits, especially for families with limited internet access. He added students needed to be in school for the interaction, but could nonetheless be unwitting carriers of the COVID-19 virus.

In contrast, patron John Kleiboeker said the “at-will” policy for wearing masks was a good one. As a believer in reviewed science, Kleiboeker said it was difficult finding research and published data substantiating the value of wearing masks.

“Not everything that comes from DESE (the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education) or the Department of Health and Senior Services is gospel,” Kleiboeker said. “If it’s a suggestion, it may be purely political talk. If an edict is provided, you should ask why. Nothing says you can’t press them, as our elected representatives, for why. Rely on sound science — trust and verify. I don’t want this to be a political issue. It is.”

As for enforcement of the rules, Kleiboeker urged, “Grace and mercy, let it abound,” adding students were excited to be back at school and would be better served with an explanation of the rules rather than having punishment imposed.

The issue was not listed as an action item, so board members listened and moved on.

In closed session, the board hired high school counselor Katie Lathem to serve as manager of the software program that tracks data for the student population of all grades.

The board approved the annual property tax levy for the 2020 tax cycle without change at $3.54: $2.75 per $100 of assessed property for the base operating rate and 79 cents for the debt service. Alumbaugh noted the district’s assessed valuation overall had risen by .3 percent, up nearly $120,000 to $44.1 million. Real estate values had risen by nearly $360,000 while personal property valuations had fallen a little more than $240,000.

The consent agenda included approving the substitute teacher list with 30 individuals identified. Alumbaugh observed the State Board of Education had approved an emergency amendment to address a substitute shortage, allowing substitute teachers to be certified under less stringent standards, after 20 hours of online training as an alternative to 60 hours of college credit. Action approved the annual memorandum of understanding outlining services provided to the district through the Clark Community Mental Health Center and guidelines for student athletics and activities for the year, with use of face coverings again “strongly encouraged” for both athletes and spectators.

Staff had undergone an active shooter drill conducted by staff of American Mobile Training Solutions in the halls in several scenarios, using actors brought in by the company, Alumbaugh said. Instruction had also been provided in I-Ready, Google Platform, the classroom app Seesaw and the new reading curriculum.

The middle school report from Principal Shannon Holden detailed how the school cafeteria had been reconfigured to 50 percent of its previous capacity. Teachers are also encouraged to each lunch with their students in their classrooms or outside, if weather permits. New picnic tables were being placed in the courtyard. Holden commended the custodial staff for regularly cleaning door knobs, doors and desks, some several times a day.

Open house had been held at specified time slots this year, rather than at open hours, allowing teachers to visit with each student.

The district had received funding through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act that included $202,809 from DESE, $154,000 of which was applied to the 2019-2020 school year, leaving $48,000 for the current year, and $65,000 from Lawrence County. Alumbaugh used the local funds to buy sprayers and thermometers, iPads for all the preschool students, and $28,000 in tuition for the online Launch service available through the Springfield school district. Some problems with Launch were still being worked out, she said. The service’s elementary program was brand new this fall and more expensive, involving six hours with direct teacher contact.

Launch, she noted, costs $225 for a half credit, breaking down to $15,000 for middle school students and $13,000 for the high school. Alumbaugh applied to Barry County for CARES Act funds but had heard nothing on the application to date. If approved, she planned to use additional funds for Launch tuition and setting up more internet hot spots. Newton County had not offered to share any of its CARES Act money with school districts, nor had Christian County, showing it was not a given that schools could access those federal funds.

The next board meeting was slated for Sept. 23.

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