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

TSD extends mask mandate to high schools

By: Dan Karpiel | The Surveyor | September 09, 2021 | Education

At a special meeting on Friday morning, the Thompson School District (TSD) Board of Education voted unanimously, 6-0, to extend the face mask mandate to the district high schools. The decision comes on the heels of a prior meeting, held on Aug. 18, where the board voted to enact a mask mandate for all Pre-K through eighth-grade schools.

Just minutes into Friday’s meeting, board member Dawn Kirk made a motion to extend the mask mandate to include all the district high schools following a brief report from TSD Chief Operations Officer Todd Piccone, where he outlined that outbreaks – defined as five or more positive cases – have been reported at four Loveland schools. The four schools were Loveland High, Mountain View High, Coyote Ridge Elementary and Lucille Erwin Middle Schools, the latter two have been under the mask mandate since Aug. 23.

In addition to the four outbreaks, board members cited rising COVID-19 case rates in Larimer County, the desire to keep in-person learning in place for as many students as possible and mask mandates recently enacted in neighboring school districts, in justifying their decision.

Two days prior at the regularly scheduled meeting, the board heard a presentation from Larimer County Health Director, Tom Gonzales, who outlined increasing positive test results among the school age population. According to the information provided, from Aug. 4 to Aug. 25, positive results increased by nearly by seven percentage points among county residents aged 11-17. Gonzales further outlined that fewer than 50% of the age 11-17 Larimer population are fully vaccinated.

“Transmission can go from our kids to our adults … primarily what we’re seeing in the ICU are those who are unvaccinated; we don’t want masks, I don’t want masks either, they’re temporary, vaccines are really our only tool out of this pandemic,” Gonzales said.

Prior to taking the vote on Kirk’s motion, Jarrett Roberts, a board member representing Loveland, offered an amendment for a 60-day expiration on the mask mandate. The rest of the board was unreceptive to the amendment and Piccone, upon questioning from the board, reiterated his belief that rather than put in place a sunset provision, it would be his preference to rely on state and county health officials for guidance on when and if to lift the mandate.

Roberts’ amendment was subsequently withdrawn and the board approved extending the mask mandate to the high schools with a provision that allows Superintendent Marc Schaffer to “determine changes (that) may be necessary or appropriate in response to on-going information from applicable health officials and authorities.”

The board moved forward with extending the mask mandate to the high schools despite having received considerable pushback from parents and students after putting in place the Pre-K through eighth-grade mandate. During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s regular meeting, 20 county residents addressed the board in-person with 17 of them arguing against the mandate.

One of those who addressed the board to express displeasure with the decision was Berthoud Town Trustee May Soricelli, who has three children in Berthoud schools. “The fact that I am here means you have failed the families of Berthoud and Loveland, the fact that they are coming to me, a trustee of Berthoud, is evidence that you are not doing your job which is to listen and act on their behalf,” Soricelli said and went on to quote the Declaration of Independence to emphasize her point that health decisions, such as wearing a mask, are not the role of elected officials or bureaucrats but belong solely to the individual and their family.

Soricelli concluded her remarks by saying, “I find this board in violation of the Constitution of the United States of America and because you no longer represent the vast majority of the parents in your district, I am calling for your immediate resignation,” to which she received thunderous and sustained applause from the near-capacity crowd.

Another Berthoud parent shared a deeply disturbing account of the situation at Turner Middle School (TMS). The gentleman stated that his daughter elected to not wear a mask and was segregated from her classes, on consecutive days, and sent to the TMS library. According to the testimony, the student told TMS faculty they were violating her Constitutional rights and quoted the 14th Amendment, which she had researched on her own.

The parent stated that while his daughter was reading her statement, “a teacher snatched that piece of paper out of her hand and told her she was a nasty little child, that she was going to kill all of her classmates and all of the teachers in this room and that she was a terrible, terrible person.” The student has since withdrawn from the TSD, the parent confirmed.

Multiple parents have stated, both while addressing the board and in a pair of Facebook groups created to oppose the mandate, that they have or they plan to withdraw their students from TSD schools in response. The Surveyor reached out to the TSD to determine how many students have been unenrolled since the beginning of the school year, but the figures were not provided prior to deadline.

While those who addressed the board in-person last Wednesday were predominantly opposed to the mandate, 10 of 11 who participated via recorded telephone message expressed support. A Berthoud resident who participated via recorded message stated, “There is just no reason we wouldn’t have a mask mandate for our kids, the ICU beds are filling up, our young children are dying from COVID and it’s so preventable, we can all just mandate that everyone wears masks and we can cut the risk factor for these kids.” As of Sept. 8, Larimer County has not reported a single COVID death from anyone under the age of 25.

Two individuals who participated via recorded message in support of the mandate were from outside the district, one from Fort Collins with children in Poudre schools and another from Massachusetts. The caller from Massachusetts, who attended the TSD in her youth, stated her name as Dr. Emma Howard Young, a pediatrician who has seen children admitted to the hospital with COVID infections, “some have been critically ill,” she said, and further outlined that wearing masks provide a strong measure of protection against the virus. Upon research using social media, the Surveyor discovered Dr. Howard Young to be the daughter of Pam Howard, TSD Board of Education Vice President.

While the decision was made official in Friday’s special meeting, evidence suggests that efforts for a mask mandate, and possible vaccine mandate and regular testing, have been being made behind the scenes for some time.

In emails obtained by the Surveyor, TSD Board President Lori Hvizda Ward, on multiple occasions, requested Larimer County Commissioners Jody Shadduck-McNally (D-Loveland), Kristin Stephens (D-Fort Collins) and Gov. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) to institute countywide and statewide mask mandates for all K-12 schools.

In an email sent from Hvizda Ward to Shadduck-McNally on Aug. 18, 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. 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 requesting Shadduck-McNally and her colleagues at the county to “take action.”

On Aug. 22, a correspondence Hvizda Ward sent to the commissioners and Gov. Polis read, “To date, neither Larimer County nor the State of Colorado have enacted health orders mandating masks in schools, vaccinations, or regular COVID-19 testing. It has been left to each local school board to enact such orders. Due to rising case counts, increasing COVID patients in hospitals, and pleas from our county department of health, we felt it necessary to lead.”

Hvizda Ward continued, “You have passed the buck straight to the smallest, least-resourced level of government. Why? I know that each of you individually supports the science around the wearing of masks indoors. Why, then, will you not act? I understand that there is a political tightrope you all must walk if you wish to maintain your offices at the next election. But please do not let our children become political pawns – I know you are all better than that.”
Hvizda Ward concluded by writing, “Please help us protect our community’s children – enact a county/statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools in areas with high or substantial community transmission of COVID-19.”

Posed with five questions regarding on the emails and other aspects relating the board’s decision to institute the mask mandate, Hvizda Ward refused, saying only, “The letters speak for themselves. My goal, and presumably most everyone’s in our communities, is to keep as many children in school in person as much as possible. I strongly encourage everyone who is eligible and able to get vaccinated.”

Prior to the conclusion of Friday’s special meeting, Schaffer announced that Katie O’Donnell, formerly the Community Relations and Public Information Supervisor for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment, has been hired to be the district’s COVID Coordinator, where she will oversee all COVID-related issues and provide regular updates to the board.

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