Pawhuska Board of Education votes to soften mask policy

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Pawhuska Board of Education voted 3-2 last Friday, April 16, to make changes in the school district’s Return to Learn Plan, including a relaxation of the policy regarding the wearing of protective masks in the classroom.

Board members Tom Boone, Scott Laird and Justin Turney voted in favor of changes recommended by Superintendent David Cash in a special board meeting Friday. Board members Addie Roanhorse and Jean Ann Simmons voted against the policy modifications.

The board received comments from the community before voting. Comments were submitted both in-person and electronically. The school district provided an electronic link on its Facebook page so that community members could attend the meeting virtually, via Zoom. Comments shared in the meeting appeared to generally support a relaxation of the mask policy.

Cash said the school district’s COVID-19 task force had met and endorsed making modifications to the Return to Learn Plan. The plan was adopted last year and has been the basis for Pawhuska Public Schools’ efforts to prevent the transmission of COVID-19.

“I think it’s served its purpose,” Cash said, adding that he thinks the policy helped the broader community. He also said school officials would continue to monitor the COVID-19 situation.

“But I think there are some things we can do right now that I think would help our current students and our faculty,” he said. The daily infection rate in Osage County had dropped from about 47 new cases per day at its highest to about two new cases per day, he said.

Cash also said students are apparently no longer wearing masks anywhere but school. The students take the masks off when they leave school premises, he said. Local churches are now having gatherings, including Sunday School classes, without masks, he said.

Cash recommended that the requirement for mask-wearing in school buildings by students, faculty and staff should be softened to a recommendation to wear a mask.

“We will have some students that will want to wear a mask,” he said.

Air-filtration systems in school buildings will remain in operation and social distancing in classrooms will continue, Cash said.

He also recommended that individual teachers should be allowed to require mask-wearing in their classrooms. The superintendent explained that some teachers have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Cash also recommended doing away with temperature checks. He said that measure had proven time consuming and largely ineffective in detecting potential COVID-19 infections. He also said Pawhuska Public Schools is about to upgrade its security system, and the upgraded system will do a body temperature scan of persons entering school buildings.

The superintendent proposed that the school schedule would remain the same for the remainder of the 2020-21 academic year, which ends in May. He noted that mask-wearing would continue to be mandatory on school buses, as a result of a U.S. presidential order. The school district has no choice regarding that policy, he said.

Decisions about field trips, guests and assemblies will be left in the hands of building principals.

Cash said the school district would revisit its policies regarding COVID-19 in August, as the 2021-22 school year gets underway, and that policies can be tightened if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in Pawhuska and Osage County.

Simmons voiced concern about what may happen in Pawhuska when variants of the COVID-19 virus become more prevalent in the area.

“We monitor this every day, just like we did in the fall,” Cash said.

“We have people who come here every day from all over the country, and there’s no way we can know whether or not they have COVID or have been exposed,” Simmons said, referring to Pawhuska’s tourist economy and the visitors it brings.

Turney said he liked the direction of the proposed change in Return to Learn Plan policies because the changes seemed to give more weight to personal choice. Boone expressed a similar opinion, and asked for clarification whether any student desiring to continue to wear a mask would be permitted to do so.

“We had students playing basketball with a mask on, because that’s what they chose to do,” Cash said. “At this point in time everybody is quite comfortable with a mask. Students, if they choose, it’s not a big deal.”

Roanhorse questioned how the school district would respond if an employee working in position such as front desk clerk in a school building had a health problem that made them more vulnerable to COVID-19.

Cash said the district would shuffle personnel and move that vulnerable employee into a position where he or she would be protected.

Cash and Assistant Superintendent Beverly Moore said the last positive test for COVID in the Pawhuska schools was at the high school about three weeks prior to the April 16 meeting. Persons who were quarantined in the aftermath of that positive test subsequently tested negative for COVID-19, Cash said.

The decision to relax the mask-wearing policy contained in the school district’s Return to Learn Plan came four days after the board voted to suspend the district’s Indoor Event Guidelines, which governed mask-wearing at events such as indoor athletic contests and Board of Education meetings. Cash noted that graduation is to be outdoors.

The board voted 3-1 in favor of suspending the Indoor Event Guidelines. Boone, Laird and Turney voted in favor of the move. Roanhorse voted against it, citing in particular her concern that board members were too close in proximity to one another during their meetings to safely conduct business without masks. Roanhorse left that meeting immediately after the vote.

“So I’m going to leave because I don’t want to be around people without masks on,” Roanhorse said before departing the April 12 meeting. She attended the board’s April 16 meeting virtually.

Cash said the district’s COVID-19 task force had unanimously agreed with the suspension of the Indoor Event Guidelines.

“It was unanimous among them that they don’t see the point at this juncture,” Cash said. He added, however, that some COVID-19 precautions will remain in effect. The superintendent cited, as an example, an athletic awards event where food will not be served to the crowd.

“We can’t just leap back to like it was a year ago,” Cash said.