At a minimum, students who return to Columbia Public Schools classrooms this fall should be strongly encouraged to wear face masks, according to parents who participated in a Zoom webinar Saturday.
The majority who spoke or posted in the webinar’s chatroom seemed to favor a mask requirement but could accept exceptions for some students.
Under the district’s reopening plan released Monday, students are encouraged but not required to wear masks if they opt to return to the classroom in August.
Families have until Tuesday to decide whether students will take in-person classes or continue learning remotely. On Friday, Superintendent Peter Stiepleman put the word out about the webinar, so parents could talk about their safety concerns in advance of the deadline. When the 2½-hour meeting began, there were about 460 attendees, he said.
A fair amount of discussion was dedicated to possible exemptions to a mask mandate.
“You have to think of everybody,” said Tricia Carr, who also said she supports the district encouraging masks. “You are required by federal law to not discriminate on disability, and you have to be aware of that.”
Participants said those who might need an exemption include students with special needs, anxiety, trauma or ADHD.
Stiepleman said that in addition to hearing-impaired students needing to read lips, it’s important for young students to see a teacher’s face when learning how to read. He said the district has purchased see-through masks for those reasons and is considering transparent face shields as well.
Almost all people in favor of requiring masks acknowledged the need for exceptions.
“I am in support of mandating masks,” Nicole Eckerson said. “I think we do have a lot of exceptions to think about, and of course, I want to be cognizant of those with special needs or other requirements.”
Eckerson said that, as a parent, having a mask requirement would make her feel safer about sending her child back to in-person classes.
Other parents in favor of requiring masks made the point that masks help keep the whole school community safe from COVID-19 and would prevent disrupting in-person classes if one student tests positive for it.
“I think we need to keep in mind that the requirement to use masks saves actual lives, that the lower the number of cases you have, the fewer people are going to die,” said Kevin Carnahan, who also wrote a guest commentary published Thursday in the Missourian that said the district’s plan didn’t go far enough in addressing mask usage.
Stiepleman said he doesn’t want to enact disciplinary actions to enforce a mask requirement. Parents suggested the district try to positively reinforce mask usage.
Stiepleman also said he personally supports students wearing masks.
Parents also raised concerns about the Tuesday deadline. Stiepleman said those who don’t make a decision by then will be contacted by the district soon afterward. He appeared to be open to moving the deadline.
On Friday evening, Mayor Brian Treece tweeted that he asked the city manager to draft an ordinance for a citywide mask requirement.
Boone County’s positivity rate for COVID-19 tests surged to 8.2% in the last week, up from 3.2% the previous week. Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services has urged residents to practice social distancing and wear masks when in public.