Dozens of people dressed in yellow showed up to the Boise School District’s board meeting Monday to show the trustees they disagree with the decision to mandate masks indoors for students and staff amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
The large group of people came with signs reading “Unmask students” and “My child, my choice.” Many wore yellow — symbolizing “smiles and joys,” said Sandy Cardon, a parent who supports making masks optional in the district. Parents said they deserved to have a choice on the issue.
Once the meeting began, people filled the chairs and stood against the wall of the crowded meeting room, but they remained quiet throughout. Trustees did not discuss the mask mandate during the meeting.
The show of support for a mask-optional policy came after a special board meeting last week at which trustees approved an updated reopening plan to mandate masks indoors for the start of the upcoming year for everyone, regardless of whether they’re vaccinated. Just weeks earlier, the board had passed a plan to make masks optional for all, but encouraged for those who weren’t fully vaccinated.
During the meeting last week, board members said mandating masks was an important step to ensure that students and staff stay safe while in schools. The decision to change course came with COVID-19 cases rising steeply in Idaho — the state added more than 3,500 cases last week, with Ada County having over 1,100 of those, and the positivity rate has soared to 10.7% — and with public health officials warning about the more transmissible delta variant.
“We feel like the masks, at this point in time, with this high transmission, are our absolute best bet to starting the school year, in person, five days a week,” Deputy Superintendent Lisa Roberts said last week.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also updated its guidance to recommend “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to schools, regardless of vaccination status,” and masking for fully vaccinated people indoors in “areas of substantial or high transmission.”
Central District Health, which covers Ada County, issued a statement in support of the CDC’s recommendation for schools.
Board President Dave Wagers said after the meeting Monday that he appreciated all of the input the board has received. Over the past several weeks, the board has probably gotten between 500 and 600 emails on both sides of the issue, he said.
“It means a lot for trustees to listen to those opinions. And we try and do that in a way where each person feels valued and respected and listened to,” he told the Idaho Statesman.
“Unfortunately, there are two very definite sides to this issue. And we have to pick one side or the other. And we have chosen to go on, at least in the trustees’ opinion at this point, is what we feel like is safe for kids, but also gives our kids the best chance to have in-person school for the fall.”
Wagers said he believes a majority of the emails received have supported a mask mandate, which has been used throughout the pandemic to try to slow the spread of the virus.
Some parents who have advocated for masks in the classroom have argued that they are a way to make sure their children and the community stay safe — especially those who are immunocompromised. Parents in support of masks have also raised concerns about the vaccine not yet being available for children younger than 12.
The Boise School District Parents’ Association — a group of “engaged citizens working together to support our district, educators and staff to pursue the best possible education for our students” — believes “parents and staff should choose which precautions are taken for their own children and/or themselves,” according to its Facebook page, which has over 450 members.
The Boise School District is the state’s second-largest, with more than 23,000 students.
On its page, the group of parents posted an event encouraging families to show up to the board meeting Monday in yellow to support making masks optional. A petition on the website also encourages a policy that lets people decide whether they want to wear masks.
“It’s time to return to normal and let our kids and staff see each other’s smiling faces every day,” the petition read. “We believe individuals and families should make their own medical decisions and that masks should be optional for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status. We have to be the voice for our children and staff or this may never end.”
Melissa Gaffrey, a parent who attended the meeting Monday, said the decision about masks should ultimately be up to parents. She also said the board’s meeting to mandate masks came at the last minute with little notice. The special board meeting last week was announced the day before.
“We feel that as parents, we should have a choice,” she said. “The medical decision making should be left up to us as parents.”
One of her sons has a speech issue, she said, so wearing masks has been difficult. Cardon said her daughter has also had a difficult time with mask mandates over the past year. She has experienced nightmares, headaches and anxiety, she said.
Another parent, Cindy Palmer, said she wants the board to listen to the anti-mask parents.
“These are our children and we need to have a say in their education and we need to have a say in how they’re educated. Our mantra is ‘my child, my choice,’” she said. “We’re the taxpayers. And we’re the ones that are paying for those schools.”
She cited a survey the school district sent out earlier this summer to families and staff asking what mitigation strategies they want to be used during the upcoming year. Of the more than 5,000 parents or guardians who filled out the survey, fewer than 30% said masks were a strategy they wanted the district to use to reopen schools in the fall. The survey took place before COVID-19 cases started to rise dramatically again in the state.
Ultimately, parents said they hoped showing up to the meeting helped to get their message across.
“We just want to show that we’re advocates,” Cardon said, “for our students and our choice.”
Becca Savransky covers education for the Idaho Statesman in partnership with Report for America. The position is partly funded through community support. Click here to donate.