Washington Evening Journal
111 North Marion Avenue
Washington, IA 52353
The Washington school board opted not to implement a mask mandate “for now” at its regular meeting Wednesday night, the last session before a school board election next month.
While it’s not a change in policy, Superintendent Willie Stone said it was important to get a vote on the books.
“We’re not really changing anything, but I think for our community, (a motion) would be good, that way they know,” Stone said.
The move came after extensive deliberation. Ryan Flannery, a physician, urged the board to implement a mask policy during the public comment portion of the meeting.
“I think we need to keep our kids safe, and I think we need to keep everyone, that includes students and staff, in school as much as possible,” Flannery said. “COVID illnesses are getting in the way of our kids being in school and succeeding … Not everyone will agree with my opinion, but I am asking the board to consider a reintroduction of mask use for students and staff to prevent illness, to decrease the spread of COVID, and to keep all the kids and staff in school and remaining healthy.”
Flannery later added that while kids were less likely to suffer the most severe effects of COVID-19, the risk was still present.
“The problem is that it’s not even one case at a time, it’s one case mushrooming into five other cases, and all those mushrooming into five other cases,” he said. “And of all those cases, you don’t know who is going to be the ones with severe outcomes or not.”
The debate was held with a backdrop of the district’s case counts in recent months. Stone presented a spreadsheet comparing the district’s numbers from last year and this year, when the district did have a mask policy in place.
The high water mark of this school year is 52 cases on Sept. 14, 3.6% of students in the district. While that number fell to 13 cases on Oct. 11, the most recent complete count, it remains well above the high point of 6 cases in Oct. 2020, and close to the last year’s peak of 19 cases in November.
Stone said a number of factors may have contributed to the higher numbers.
“Masks are something we have changed,” he said. “Some of the other things we’ve changed are we have relaxed on going to lunch, all out kids go to lunch at the same time … things like that. All of our kids go to recess at the same time now.”
Board Member Jason Hamilton went a step further, saying the difference was likely due to issues outside of the school’s control, including the emergence of the delta variant.
“The unmasking and the closeness of these children isn’t happening only in our school, it’s happening when they go to the zoo, it’s happening when they go out to sporting events,” he said. “We’re not their only exposure to the real world.”
Board Member Troy Suchan was vocally opposed to a mask mandate.
“Even at the highest point, 96.4% of our kids didn’t have it,” he said. “So to require all those kids to wear a mask when 96.4% of them were effected is kind of ridiculous to me.”
Suchan also said he was optimistic given falling case counts in the district.
“I also know that this is going down hill, so in my mind, more contagious would be going the other way,” he said. “Science is based on numbers, and right now I’m looking at the history, and we’ve got it almost beat according to that.”
While she eventually voted with the rest of the board, Board Member Sonia Levya disagreed.
“That’s understandable if your child is in the 96%, but what if your child is not? Then it’s kind of like saying we don’t care about you,” she said. “I’m thinking kids that are autoimmune compromised, racial disparities, or kids with disabilities that can’t wear a mask.”
Levya compared mask policies to common practices for allergen exposure.
“As a mother of kids with allergies, it’s something that a lot of people don’t understand,” she said. “If somebody told me, ‘You have to sit next to that kid that eats peanut butter because you’re the only kid that can’t,’ … I’m comparing this (to) kids that have autoimmune deficiencies.”
Stone said he fell somewhere in the middle.
“The one that I worry most about are our pre-K through sixth grade, they are the ones that can’t be vaccinated,” he said. “Honestly on this, I don’t have a recommendation, because on this one I see both ways.”
Board members also balked at a proposal to implement a mask mandate whenever the district exceeded the 3% rate seen in September.
“If you go back to wearing masks, then why do you eat lunch together? why do you have football games?” Board President Eric Turner said. “How do you designate and put criteria? It’s really complicated. There’s tons of risk with lots of things we do. There is nothing we can do to make it perfect.”
Despite the decision, Turner said the option to discuss mask policies would stay on the table as community members brought it up.
“If you have a concern tomorrow or you have a concern two weeks from now, let Mr. Stone know,” he said. “If we have to have an emergency meeting, then that’s the way it is.”