The first assignment of the new school year for the Jeffco Public Schools Board of Education was to delve into the debate around masking of schoolage children.
Board member, Susan Miller, set off the debate just moments into the first board meeting of the school year on Sept. 2 with a request to add an agenda item — discussion of the District’s compliance with a JCPH (Jefferson County Public Health) public health order (PHO) requiring universal masking in schools.
Board President Susan Harmon, along with appointed member, Rick Rush, said they weren’t in favor of adding the discussion to the night’s agenda — a position met with unsurprising jeers from the crowd in attendance.
However, new Superintendent, Tracy Dorland, said she was open to having a public discussion about the district’s COVID protocols.
“I am very proud of the district team and the work that they have put into complying with the public health order that has been put in place by Jefferson County Public Health,” she said.
Dorland agreed with Harmon and Rush, that the last-minute nature of the discussion might not lead to the most effective way of dealing with the conversation, but she said she’d do her best.
“I was hopeful going into the fall, that we were going to be coming back in a more normal fashion with less impact from COVID. That has not been the case. I’m extremely disappointed by that,” Dorland said. “And at this point in time, we are legally required to follow the public health order.”
She said many of the County’s mitigation policies have helped families feel safe sending their children to school. She also recognized that there are families with many different perspectives on the COVID precautions.
All in all, the discussion of whether or not to have another discussion about the topic later in the evening, lasted more than 20 minutes.
During the one-hour public comment period, speakers went to the public health masking order with a vengeance. The first person to speak linked masking to future suicides. The second said he wanted to speak about assessment tests, but instead went directly into masking.
Twice-warned to stay on topic, he continued on mask policy until his microphone was silenced and a security officer had to ask him to step away from the podium.
Dorland then spoke about the District’s compliance with the masking order. She said legal advice from both internal and external counsel concluded that the district was obligated to follow JCPH public health orders.
Dorland said the District has pushed JCPH for goal posts for when some of the public health requirements might be lifted. She said she thinks it’s helpful when a community has goal posts to work toward.
“And I will say publicly that we are not getting clear answers from public health authorities on that issue,” she said. “I will also say publicly that even if we occasionally have gotten a clear answer from public health on that issue, it has changed, and the goal posts move.”
Dorland then said that she agrees that masks get in the way of some learning and she’s worried about oral language development and students not being able to see the expressions on their teachers’ faces.
Testing for unvaccinated teachers and students who want to participate in extra-curricular activities was the second part of the COVID protocols dilemma Dorland addressed. She said the testing program will begin as soon as next week for unvaccinated teachers and staff.
State funding will allow the District to begin testing at 18 sites, expanding the program when possible. They will be using rapid tests to cut down on missed classroom time.
Extracurricular activities are unique in that if the activity takes place during the school day, testing for unvaccinated students will not be required.
But activities that take place outside of normal school hours, will require weekly testing for unvaccinated students. Dorland said she didn’t agree with JCPH policy on extra-curricular activities but is resigned to carrying out testing because the district is legally bound to do so.
The masking conversation then took a dark turn.
Board member Stephanie Schooley spoke directly to those in attendance saying her family has been harassed over the masking issue and asked for it to stop. She said she’s received threatening letters — some containing photos of her children — and has had strangers driving by her house. Voice wavering, she pleaded with those listening, to bring the temperature down.
Within seconds of her request for the abusive measures to stop, an unidentified woman in attendance yelled out “Your life’s not more important than a 12-year old’s.”
Masks dominated the final public comment period of the meeting. Anger and vitriol directed toward the board was palpable. Officers were required to escort yet another group of speakers from the podium. One speaker wore a shirt with an illustration of an assault rifle while another demanded resignations from all board members.
The newspaper reached out to District Executive Director, Media Relations, Cameron Bell, with questions about whether the board would continue to hold in-person meetings with public comment in light of the heightened tensions in the public comment portion of meetings.
Bell’s response was that there is no requirement (via state statute) to include public comment as part of a board meeting (therefore there is no rule how you hold public comment). However, she said the board is committed to maintaining a process where they can hear from the community and that this listening may inform the board's understanding of perspectives and values in the community as they seek to honor a shared responsibility for providing quality education for all students.
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