Three Springfield school board members advocated Tuesday for a temporary return to mandatory masking for students.
The comments from Charles Taylor, Danielle Kincaid and Shurita Thomas-Tate started just hours after the district announced plans to shut down for the rest of the week due to a spike in COVID-19 cases.
The surge prompted the district to return to required masking for employees and visitors through at least Feb. 4. Currently, students have the option to mask or not.
The district dropped its universal mask mandate in late 2021 after a lawsuit from parents and mounting pressure from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt. Schmitt, who is running for U.S. Senate, filed a cease-and-desist letter threatening legal action if required masking continued.
In a statement Tuesday, Schmitt reiterated plans to sue any district that fails to drop its mask mandate or quarantine order, stating "COVID-19 poses very little risk to children."
"It’s far past time that the power to make health decisions concerning children be pried from the hands of bureaucrats and put back into the hands of parents and families, and I will take school district after school district to court to achieve that goal," he said.
The News-Leader reached out to Schmitt's office Wednesday to ask for his response to the school closures due to staff shortages and student absences.
The office's response: "We fundamentally believe that children should be in school, where they receive the best learning experience around their peers. Parents, as taxpayers, deserve to have teachers on staff, teaching their children in person."
Taylor, who was not present at the Tuesday meeting but participated virtually, brought up a return to mandatory masking.
"I would strongly recommend that by board action — perhaps not tonight, maybe in a special meeting — we extend to the same expiration date as the masking mandate for employees and visitors to include students," he said. "It's absolutely true that a masking mandate is not entirely enforceable. It is not a silver bullet but it's beneficial impact is certainly not zero."
The other board members weighed in on the topic but not all made clear their stance on a return to mandatory masking. No action was taken at the meeting.
Superintendent Grenita Lathan said the issue is expected to come up again.
"The board will continue to discuss that at its next scheduled meeting," she said during a Wednesday news conference. "And if the board were to pass that then it would go into effect and then there would be a time limit set."
It is worth noting the decision to require masking in mid-2020 and to make them optional in late 2021 was made by the administration, not the board. Legal arguments over whether cities, school districts and other entities have the authority to require masks have in part centered on whether the mandates have been issued by appointed administrators or elected bodies.
A recent surge in COVID-19 cases in the Springfield area and across Missouri, fueled by the omicron variant, created staggering absences in the district. On Friday, 20 percent of the 3,500 employees and 19 percent of the 24,100 students were out.
The district tracks and reports new COVID-19 cases weekly. Last week, there were 863 new cases including 661 students and 202 employees.
Lathan said another 300 cases, including 200 students and 100 employees, were added at the start of this week.
Noting the rapid spread, Taylor said it is unclear if universal masking would have helped the district avoid closure.
Taylor added he is more concerned about the health of students, employees, and their families than being sued again.
Kincaid called masking a "tool" and urged the board to consider requiring it, even though the AG threatened to sue any district with a mandate.
"Being the largest school district in the state, I know that we've got a giant target on our back but I also hesitate to make a decision regarding safety based on a potential lawsuit that may or may not be successful," said Kincaid, an attorney.
"I would prefer that we protect our students and our staff and you have masks so that we can have in-person classes."
Temporary mask mandates were in place for the start of spring classes at Missouri State University, Drury University, and Ozarks Technical Community College.
Kincaid acknowledged mask fatigue and noted a return to mandatory masking may not be a popular decision. "But, I do believe it is the right decision now."
Noting the spike in new cases, she added: "This is not something that we can just ignore and bury our heads in the sand."
Thomas-Tate said with a limited supply of COVID-19 tests, the district is not able to test individuals who are asymptomatic.
"We are begging for continued climbing of COVID cases, especially without masking," she said.
She referenced an email sent to the board asking what was the worst thing that could happen if the AG sued the district over masking.
"The biggest impact would be the fees that it would cost and I know that ... is something that we have to be concerned with," Thomas-Tate said. "But for me, the safety and health of our children, our families, our teachers, is more important than the cost that will be associated with legal fees."
Board member Maryam Mohammadkhani, a retired pathologist, said she comes at the polarizing issue of masking from a scientific perspective.
"The fundamental question we have to ask is what are we trying to achieve, like what is the end game, what is the goal?" she said.
She said: "This idea that we're going to mask the least vulnerable to protect the more vulnerable is just not how our society functions. We don't forego what is good for our children for the sake of the community."
Mohammadkhani, who did not wear a mask at the meeting, said the health of children is the priority and added there is a "cost-benefit ratio" when it comes to determining what is harmful to children.
She said 710 children, birth through age 17, have died of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. (The CDC reported a similar number of deaths, 762, but for birth through age 18, through Wednesday).
"Overall deaths from other causes is 67,000, to put it in perspective," she said. "I won't go into the numbers on flu but it's less than ... two typical flu seasons combined."
Mohammadkhani said masks are not an effective tool because children are "not good users of tight-fitting masks" and noted some have a difficult time learning and being understood while wearing them.
"The thing that really bothers me and I don't know if you realize — and I just want the board to know — that there are children between ages 5-11 who do commit suicide and I know we've lost kids in this district just in the last eight, nine months to accidents, suicide, homicide," she said.
"We've heard from some of our patrons with children who are really struggling with a lot of psychological anguish and I just want to remind everyone that when children do commit suicide — it's hard to even talk about this — it's because of feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. It's not for attention."
She added: "This is what the fear of COVID is doing to them. It's making them have panic attacks and feel so much anguish and so we have to really look at what the cost-benefit is."
Mohammadkhani said the omicron variant is moving through and the district would likely be in the same spot, with or without masking.
"And, in some way, these kids can't be in this bubble. The younger you are, the sooner you get exposed to this less virulent ... version of this virus you're set up for perhaps a better long-term, lifelong immunity," she said.
Board member Scott Crise said he is not in favor of reinstating a mask mandate, noting the city and many employers are not requiring a face covering.
He added that it was difficult for teachers and staff to enforce proper masking in schools.
"It is a tool in the toolbox but that tool is a choice, though. To have the attorney general lawsuit threat is very concerning," he said.
Board vice president Denise Fredrick said she has been hearing from parents that they appreciate the district recommending vaccines and making masking optional.
"They want that choice," she said. "And so I am listening and I am hearing that we all, as board members, we want to do the right thing."
She added: "I just keep asking, could someone tell us what that right thing is?"
News-Leader reporters Andrew Sullender and Galen Bacharier contributed to this story.
This article originally appeared on Springfield News-Leader: Three SPS board members urge reinstating student mask mandate