Oct. 2—More than 70 people attended the Newton school board meeting in-person on Sept. 27; about a third of which spoke to elected officials during open forum to argue their supportive or opposing viewpoints on mask mandates.
Prior to open forum, Cody Muhs, president of the Newton Community School District Board of Education, addressed the board's policy on public participation: the board has the discretion to limit the amount of speaking time, cannot take action and is under no obligation to respond.
Each person was given three minutes to speak at the Newton school board meeting. Muhs asked the decorum and orderly process of the board meeting be adhered to and not be disrupted by individuals in the audience. Only those addressed by the board president would be allowed to speak.
Individuals causing disruptions may be asked to leave the meeting, Muhs said, and any defamatory comments may be subject to legal action.
Muhs also issued a statement:
"As a reminder, this a time for the board to hear from the community, and the board will not engage with speakers on topic. Finally, this is perhaps one of the most passionate topics we have had during my tenure on the board.
"Although it has been passionate, we appreciate that although there have been very divergent opinions shared through emails and through personal conversations, people have been very civil tonight up to this point and thoughtful in their comments so far. And I expect the same tonight.
"I ask that no one speaks when someone is at the lectern and remind everyone that the rest of the community and the state are looking at how we conduct ourselves tonight. Families contemplating moving to Newton are watching how we interact tonight.
"We can have divergent opinions and respect those that disagree with us. I've seen countless school board meetings get out of hand across the county. And to what end? That's not Newton. And I look forward to the respectful discussion tonight."
Kate Bauer, a substitute teacher at the Newton school district, did not want to argue the science behind the masks but said there was a purpose to wearing face coverings last year until a vaccine was distributed to vulnerable populations. Bauer said she's grateful those who have the vaccine are now protected.
"Kids are not in that vulnerable population," Bauer said. "So my question to you is: Do the minimal effects of masking our children outweigh the effects of our kids' mental health? Is it worth it to you to slow down the ability for our kids to learn and grow this year in our Newton schools? To me, this is a clear no."
Bauer, who opposed mask mandates, claimed her 9-year-old child "suffered mental health effects" last year by putting on a mask every day. However, some parents, like Sabrina Shondel, argue those effects are not linked masks. Shondel pointed the real cause to kids being isolated and forced to learn virtually.
"The fact that kids weren't able to be with their friends all the time or learn in a normal classroom environment, which they are now, stopped them from gaining a lot of skills," she said, adding that masks protect vulnerable kids. "...To see that (immunocompromised students) feel incredibly unsafe at school is a problem."
Other speakers claimed mask mandates take away their freedoms and choices as parents. Carrie Garrett, a special education teacher at Berg Middle School, said families in Newton have been grateful to be given back their freedoms to choose for their children.
"As a teacher and a parent in the district, I can say no masks and having normalcy back in our schools has been the best thing for our kids socially, emotionally and academically," Garrett said. "Students are more engaged. Students are attending school. Students are happier."
Stacy Simbro, of Newton, stressed masks are a safety measure and that it is the community's duty to protect each other. The community is obligated to do the right thing, he said. As a parent, Simbro felt he no longer had the ability to have options he was provided last year to keep his child safe.
"This is not about a right or freedom of choice," Simbro said. "As the old saying goes: 'Your right to swing your fist ends at the top of my nose.' COVID is no different. I breathe the same air you do even if you're around me ... The shortest path is to deal with it. Not to ignore it. But to get through it."
Newton High School senior Kaylee Parks agreed and said neither she nor her siblings enjoy wearing masks.
"But we will do it in order to protect lives at risk," Parks said. "Mask laws are not against the law and they are justified due to public health relations. We all should understand and entrust in science. Science and data prove masks decrease the level of infection and harmful health impacts."
Talks of data were common amongst speakers. Alisa Buchli, the secretary of attendance at the high school, said she see's first hand what is happening at the school in regards to illness. At the time of the meeting, Buchli said three students in the high school were absent due to COVID-19.
Buchli compared today's data to February when mask mandates were in effect at the school. On Sept. 24 there were 39 kids gone, she said; in February, school averaged 34.9 students out per day, but she didn't specify whether those students were exposed, tested positive or were quarantined and tested negative.
Based on that data, however, Buchli claimed there's not that much difference between when the school district had a mask mandate and when the district didn't have on in place.
"I ask that you represent your voter base," she said. "I see daily, first hand the vast majority is choosing to use their individual rights to choose not to wear a mask. We are not against masks. I hand out a couple masks a week to those students who choose it ... I'm more than happy to hand them out."
Three school board candidates speak up
Four Newton school board seats are up for grabs. The incumbents — Robyn Friedman, Cody Muhs, Travis Padget and Graham Sullivan — are all seeking re-election. In addition to them, four other candidates have thrown their names in the race. Three of those newcomers spoke at the board meeting.
Jeff Holschuh, who spoke against the mask mandate, said regardless of what the board votes on that night he will respect their decision. It is also his "sincere hope" the issue of masks will "occupy only a tiny fraction" of what the school board deals with the in future. Holschuh said wants what is best for students.
Holschuh also said he's not anti-mask and is in full support of those who choose to wear a mask. What he is not in support of is the idea of the school district telling his sons that they have to wear a mask. Out of the three candidates who spoke, Holschuh was the only one to propose a solution.
The solution he offered was similar to the targeted approach by Pella schools, and would eventually be what Newton school board approved.
"Essentially, if the school building — not the district average — reports a 10 percent absence rate specifically due to illness, everybody in that building will have to wear a mask for 10 days," he said. "After 10 days, the numbers are analyzed and the masks either remain mandatory or go back to being optional."
Elizabeth Hammerly has four kids in the district and has spent 17 years working in education. Hammerly recalled the recent homecoming festivities where there were mostly unmasked people crowding around downtown Newton, eventually criticizing those who were arguing about safety.
"Is it really about safety? We've been bombarded by orders to comply. Comply with guidance or find yourself being ridiculed for your personal choices," she said. "I would ask you: What is the plan for Newton? What would the board deem for the ultimate threshold for safety so we can tuck these little masks away?"
Hammerly questioned how the district can know spread is occurring in the classroom. The variant will grow and spread, she said.
"Folks, there are risks for just existing," Hammerly said. "There's risk in the choices we make and everything that we do. We the people choose to move forward. We choose to assume the risk. Because it's called life and we were chosen to live."
Matt Holmes, who serves as president of Berg Middle School's parent-teacher association, told the board actions speak louder than words. He said the board's actions have been deafening and its words hypocritical. Holmes criticized board members who say they're for mask mandates but don't wear masks at events.
"And yet you want to require them to be worn," Holmes said. "The state regulation was put in place not to stop you from wearing a mask. It simply stops you from requiring my child or others to wear them. So if you believe in them so passionately, I ask you ... 'Why are you not wearing them voluntarily?'"
Holmes said board members are elected to make decisions based on the majority of their constituents.
"School board elections are this November," he said. "That's why myself and several others are running. Because your day of reckoning is coming and your decisions you make tonight or in the near future will speak volumes when your terms are up."
Contact Christopher Braunschweig at 641-792-3121 ext. 6560 or firstname.lastname@example.org