Berthoud Weekly Surveyor | Covering all the angles in the Garden Spot

Thompson reverses course, requires masks at all pre-K through eighth grade schools

August 19, 2021 | Community News

By Dan Karpiel
The Surveyor
When the six members of the Thompson School District (TSD) Board of Education and the TSD administrative leadership entered the board room for Wednesday evening’s regular meeting wearing masks, it was clear to the full-capacity crowd (as well as the nearly 200 assembled outside) that the die had been cast and the decision was made.
Nearly five hours later, it was made official – all TSD students, staff and visitors in the district’s pre-K through eighth-grade schools will be required to wear masks beginning on Monday, Aug. 23.
In announcing the new edict, the TSD said, in part, “Over the past several weeks, board members and district staff have received feedback from many families and community members regarding face mask usage within our schools. At the same time, district staff has continued to partner with officials at the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment to monitor data and the impact of the pandemic within the community.”
The board and those in attendance who supported the mask mandate argued that wearing masks will help slow infection rates and achieve the ultimate goal of keeping full-time, in-person learning in place, which they argued would be at risk absent the universal mandate. The decision to exempt high school students and staff from the mask mandate is due to the fact that those ages 12 and over are and have been eligible to receive the vaccine for several months and vaccination rates in that age group have been climbing.
Prior to the official vote, board members listened as nearly 70 parents, grandparents and students addressed the board both in person and via recorded telephone message. While those who spoke came down on both sides of the mask mandate issue, those opposed to the mandate were both significantly larger in number and more boisterous in their address.
Arguments made spanned the spectrum of the larger pandemic issue, with some using hard facts and data (on both sides) to support their claims while others took a more emotional tone. This is the second meeting in succession where parents addressed the board opposing a mask mandate and expressed support for the previously in-place mask recommendation, allowing children and families to decide whether or not to wear a mask for the duration of the school day.
Those opposed to the mandate not only expressed their opposition, but many stated during public comment that should a mandate be put in place in the district, they will not remain quiet. Some stated that they will not mask their children, forcing the schools to take disciplinary actions. TSD Chief Operations Officer Todd Piccone and TSD Superintendent Dr. Marc Schaffer told the board and the assembled crowd that masks will be treated, from a disciplinary perspective, like a dress code violation. Others threatened to remove their children entirely from TSD schools, with some saying they will homeschool and others will consider sending their children to private/charter schools or enroll in a neighboring district that does not impose a mask mandate.
Stu Boyd, who represents District G that includes all of Berthoud, attempted to offer something of a compromise and received support from board member Jarrett Roberts. Boyd argued for a sunset on the mask mandate, allowing a period of a few weeks to examine the data among student and staff infection rates to see if the mask mandate was having the intended effect. Roberts supported Boyd’s position, but other board members appeared largely opposed. Board member Dawn Kirk proclaimed that Larimer County Commissioners wanted the board to put in place a mask mandate similar to ones in the Poudre School District and other surrounding areas.
The board did strike the term “for the 2021-22 school year” from the official wording of the board’s action but no sunset provision was installed in its place. Instead of the sunset provision offered by Boyd and supported by Roberts, the board decided to receive regular updates from Superintendent Schaffer working partnership with county health officials to decided when and if to lift the mandate or make other adjustments to the policy.
Berthoud Town Trustee May Soricelli, a parent of three who attend Berthoud Elementary, Turner Middle School and Berthoud High School, arranged a last-minute signature-gathering effort just hours before the board meeting opposing the pending mask mandate. Soricelli was able to obtain 124 signatures in a two-hour span from Berthoud parents opposed to the mandate; Soricelli presented the signatures to the board during her address during public comment.
Prior to the meeting, Soricelli said she was prompted to initiate the signature-gathering effort because “I am compelled by the stories of so many parents who’ve reached out to me. Prior to school starting, and then the last couple days, it has been about how wonderful it is to not have their kids masked and how detrimental it was to have had their kids masked last year.”
Soricelli shared stories from the three back-to-school nights she attended with her children, remarking how happy everyone appeared to be returning to a normal school year and be absent of the mask requirement. She further stated that she and many with whom she spoke during the signature-gathering effort believe masking should be an individual choice.
“I maybe saw about five masks in each school from parents, students, staff; it stood out to me there is a large majority of people who have either moved on from the fear or they have been vaccinated and are not afraid,” Soricelli said. I think 1,000% it is up to every individual, I think parents get to choose, if they want their kids to be masked there is no shame for that, there is no shame for vaccines, but I do think it needs to be individual freedom, this is bigger than a virus, it’s an American freedom, a constitutional freedom.”
Prior to taking the official vote on the policy, the board questioned whether students subject to the mandate will be required to wear masks while competing in indoor sports and other extra-curricular activities. It appeared that board members were not aware of the current sports season schedules and questioned whether the indoor sports held at the junior high level – basketball, volleyball, wrestling and swimming – were currently on-going and slated to begin soon.
After some discussion, Piccone explained to the board that junior high school sports follow what is in place at the high school level. High school sports in Colorado are governed by the Colorado High School Activities Associations (CHSAA) which has maintained from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, they follow guidelines put forth by Gov. Jared Polis (D) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). The Polis administration lifted state-wide mandates, deferring to counties and municipalities, and thus school districts, to enact policies that best fit at the local level. Therefore, at this time, junior high sports will follow what is practiced at the high school level.
Prior to the board meeting, an email between TSD Board President Lori Hvizda Ward and Larimer County Commissioner Jody Shadduck-McNally (D-Loveland) was obtained by the Surveyor.
In the correspondence, dated Monday, Aug. 16, Hvizda Ward wrote, in part, “We are not the health experts, however, and neither the County nor the State health policy professionals are willing to lead on this. Boulder County has shown decisive leadership by mandating mask-wearing in schools. Tri-County Health (Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties) at this very moment is considering enacting a mask mandate for schools. Larimer County, like Weld County, appears to be unwilling to even consider a mask mandate. Commissioners Kefalas and Stephens are aware of our request for the County to act on this, the County has the authority to enact health orders, which the school district is tasked with following.” The email concluded with Hvizda Ward imploring Shadduck-McNally and her colleagues at the county to “take action.”
A parent who attended the meeting to express opposition to the mask mandate raised the email in question when addressing the board and distributed physical copies to the assembled crowd. After challenging Hvizda Ward to respond, which she did not do, in line with board policy and prior precedent, the president called an emergency 15-minute recess, and, along with the other five members and TSD leadership, promptly departed the board room.
Upon returning, board Vice President Pam Howard spoke, stating that it is common practice for government officials to correspond with one another and there was nothing illegal about the correspondence between Hvizda Ward and Shadduck-McNally. Some in the crowd were unhappy with Howard’s statement and jeered the board for a few seconds.
On the email exchange, Soricelli said, “I am aware of the email, I have to say I was absolutely appalled and disgusted. I have reached out as both a mother and trustee in recent weeks asking them to reconsider pushing these mandates and I was met, and the community was met, with a reply that (the TSD board) has no intention of going down this road, (they) will follow the county (guidelines). So, to see an email that’s suggesting that they’ve been pushing the county to pursue the mandates is absolutely disheartening. I wanted to believe better, and I had hoped they had a position to defend the voices of the parents and I feel that has not happened.”
The Surveyor has submitted a request to the TSD under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) for all emails between Hvizda Ward, the Larimer County Commissioners and Larimer Health officials. This story will be updated, if necessary, following the reply to the CORA request.

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