Columbia Falls schools will require all students to wear masks

by CHRIS PETERSON
Editor | August 12, 2020 7:04 AM

School District 6 will start in-person classes in the next few weeks. All students, K-12 will be required to go through daily health screenings and wear masks, the school board decided Monday night.

The move to require masks for all students came after emotional testimony from teachers and parents to the school board, through a Zoom videoconference.

The school’s initial plan was only going to require face coverings for students in grades 6-12, because research has shown that younger people are less likely to spread the disease.

But teachers balked at that, noting that students in fifth grade are 10 and 11 years old — the age where young adults certainly can spread the virus.

There were also concerns about social distancing in the classrooms. Kindergartener teacher Nicolette Bales said she measured her classroom, which is one of the bigger rooms in the building, and she can safely have about 14 kids in the room, under the school’s physical distancing guidelines.

There’s just one problem with that — her class typically has at least 10 more students than that.

Bales was also concerned about her own children attending school, noting that if they get infected, they wouldn’t be able to visit their grandparents.

Bales concerns were echoed by other teachers.

Parent Sheena Pate told the board she had a kindergartener entering school this year and she was openly worried about the virus. She said she had two family members in different states that were teachers and they both have contracted coronavirus already. Pate was considering remote learning for her child.

Both Pate and Bales didn’t admonish the district, they appreciated the effort that went into the plan, but they still had worries.

The school’s coronavirus plan, which is just under 30 pages long, was set to go out to parents Tuesday.

After an discussion that lasted about two hours, the board, in a 5-2 vote, approved the plan, with the modification that masks be required for all students and that the school enforce the rule. Students with medical conditions would be exempt. Masks will be handed out to students who don’t have one. There will also be special masks for choir students, so they can sing without spreading germs.

The board also approved a contract with a company that has created a phone app so parents can do health screenings at home. If a student is cleared via the app, they can enter without having to go through a screening at the school.

Board members Keri Hill and Michael Nicosia voted against the final plan. Nicosia suggested the district postpone its implementation. Hill had doubts about the school’s ability to enforce the face covering provisions, even though she noted one of her own children is high risk.

Nicosia saw problems in reopening. He noted that the schools require that students be vaccinated for a host of illnesses that have been all but squashed over the years.

“But we’re going to open up with a pandemic with no vaccine,” he said. “That’s just odd.”

Remote learning is an option for parents. Other districts in the state that have required masks have actually seen a reduction in in-person enrollment, not an increase, superintendent Dave Wick noted.

A previous survey of parents in School District 6 showed that 87 percent supported in-school instruction this school year.

There are still issues surrounding sports. The athletic directors across the valley are going to meet later this week to discuss some issues. One possibility is that spectators won’t be allowed at games, principal Scott Gaiser told the board, but that hasn’t been finalized, yet.

School sports practices were expected to start Friday.