For a group of Mitchell School District parents, the decision Monday night to require everyone on school district property to wear a face mask for the 2020-21 school year due to concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak was met with a variety of emotions. But one emotion seemed to run throughout the group.
“I am very, very, extremely disappointed,” said Debbie Emme, in an interview with the Mitchell Republic. She is one of dozens of Mitchell school parents who make up Mitchell Kernel Parents Against Mandatory Masks, a group opposed to the requirement and which lobbied the board to consider making the mask rule a recommendation rather than a mandate.
She was present when the Mitchell Board of Education approved by unanimous vote to require the masks. Now, she ponders how her children in the school district will respond to the requirement. She has three kids in the district with one each at the elementary, middle school and high school level.
“My biggest concern is my son with ADHD. He’s going to get sick of it, get frustrated and is going to play with (the mask),” Emme said. “So am I going to consistently be getting calls from the principal's office when he won’t keep the mask on?”
She noted that even at the July 13 meeting of the board, many adults in the audience wearing masks continuously adjusted them. With grown adults having trouble keeping their masks in a comfortable position, the problem will only be worse with students, especially younger ones.
“With kids, it’s not going to stay,” Emme said.
The mandate concerns Emme enough that she is exploring the possibility of having her kids transfer out of the district, possibly to one of the smaller area schools if they do not have a similar mask requirement. It’s a difficult choice to weigh, she said, especially in light of the some of the programs her kids enjoy in the Mitchell district.
“We’ve looked at the possibility of transferring to another school. My middle-schooler wants to stay because she’s in the robotics program,” Emme said. She said she has also heard that some parents are looking into homeschooling as an alternative.
The board of education has said it would continue to review procedures as the state of the pandemic and other circumstances warrant, and that changes can and likely will be made to protocols as the school year progresses. Emme said she hopes the board will reconsider its stance on masks.
Cody Larson is another parent who has concerns about required masks. While he said he understands both sides of the argument, he believes the choice of students using masks should be left up to the parents.
“I just think that they should have the right to choose if they want to wear a mask or not,” Larson said.
There are going to be many times during the school day when students will likely have to remove their masks anyway. Choosing when that is acceptable and how to enforce the violations is going to be a problem, he said.
“They still have to take them off to eat and drink. You can’t keep them on all day,” Larson said.
He said he would be more comfortable with a mandate coming from a larger government authority, either at the state or federal level.
“If a mandate is coming from the president of the United States or the governor of the state, then you know what? That’s what it is,” Larson said.
Larson has two children in the district. He said neither are looking forward to wearing a mask, but he also said they plan to attend classes when they start in the fall. He does not see homeschooling or transferring in his family’s plans at this time.
He also stressed that he is not opposed to those who wish to wear masks doing so. But that choice should be in the hands of parents, not school officials.
“I think it’s important for them to be around their peers. And I don’t see us transferring, but I know there are other people saying they are going to look at other options,” Larson said. “I get it from the standpoint that if you’re out there and truly scared about this thing and want to wear a mask.”
Sonja VanErdewyk, a former practicing nurse who addressed the board at the July 13 meeting on behalf of the opposition group, said the group came together out of a need to have their concerns heard and relaying those concerns, such as the belief that it should be parents making the call to mask their kids, not the board of education.
“We’re lucky in South Dakota to not be in the situation of other states that have governments that are oppressive. Our group is extremely concerned about rights,” VanErdewyk said. “We brought this up because the parents don’t feel like they’ve had a voice in that.”
VanErdewyk, who has two college-age children who used to be in the Mitchell school system, said she had hoped the board would request a district-wide survey of parents on the best way to proceed with masks. She has since been in contact with school administration about possibly doing just that, and she continues to carry on a dialog with school officials on the subject.
“How do you know if you don’t do a survey?” VanErdewyk asked. “You can’t get a feel for your parents and community unless you do a survey. You have to in order to find a real feeling to know what’s going on.”
VanErdewyk cited studies questioning the effectiveness of masks, especially in an environment such as a large public school. She said N95 masks, often recommended as an effective mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, must be professionally fitted to be used properly and that masks made of cloth restrict breathing and can be difficult to keep clean. She also laments that there is not as much focus on prevention in terms of healthy living and eating well as a way to boost the body’s natural immune system.
But in the end, it’s as much about parental choice in the matter, she said. She also said she had no opposition to those who wished to wear a mask if they so choose.
“I know they are concerned about older staff members, and we are not opposed to people who are older, at-risk or immunocompromised who want to wear masks,” VanErdewyk said. “We just want the choice.”
The board of education consulted with several entities in making its decision. VanErdewyk was part of that group, as was the school reopening task force and school administration. Also cited as a source of information was a letter signed by 10 Mitchell physicians that provided a 11-point outline of recommendations for reopening the school to live classes.
The first recommendation involved masks, and stated that while it may be a challenge at first, mandating mask use is the safest option should the district return to in-person classes in the fall.
Jesse Barondeau, a pediatrician and doctor of adolescent medicine at the Mitchell and Avera Medical Group Family Health Center, was one of the co-authors of the outline and one of the doctors to sign the accompanying letter. He said he and his colleague felt it was important for the board to get the latest and best medical and scientific advice to school officials so they could make an informed decision.
“I got concerned and contacted other colleagues that were interested in this topic. We brainstormed on what to do. We thought we’d write a letter ourselves and present things medically, scientifically and as objectively as possible,” Barondeau said. “We wanted to get as many signatures from physicians to express the medical standpoint for the board to make an informed decision without getting misinformation.”
He understands the aversion to the move being a requirement, but said the benefits are worth the inconvenience.
“We appreciate the controversy and the politics of it. The word ‘mandate’ tends to set off fights. But if you’re going to open the school up you need to do it as safely as possible for the children's and teachers’ health,” Barondeau said.
He said while all the points listed in the outline are important, requiring mask use is one of the easier steps the district could take to help ensure safety. He said any mask is useful in helping spread the disease, including cloth masks.
“Something that covers the nose and mouth will be better than nothing,” Barondeau said. “It’s one of the easier things to do. The scheduling and stuff could be more complicated for the school to work out.”
The information circulating that masks inhibit oxygen intake and the expulsion of carbon dioxide from the body are untrue and muddy the waters for parents seeking solid information on how to keep their children safe, he said.
“All those things are untrue and easy to disprove. I noticed a lot of parents are getting scared by that, and they’re right because it sounds scary,” Barondeau said. “This is a big change and any change is hard to get through. I and the nurses wear masks every time we go into the clinic and that was tough for us as well.”
He said the best source for information on protecting yourself from COVID-19 is organizations like the Center for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, the American Academy of Pediatrics and health care systems like Avera and Sanford. He encouraged those with concerns to start their research there and to consult with their own physicians.
He said he was pleased the board of education elected to require masks when school reopens for the 2020-21 school year. He said while it may be a tough adjustment at first, it was the right move for the safety of students, teachers, staff and the community at large. Like many concerned parents, he himself has children in the school system and wants nothing more than for them to have a healthy education experience.
“For the health of the community, that’s the right choice,” Barondeau said.