Tension over Columbia Public Schools' mask policy remained high throughout the evening Monday. When the board unanimously voted to extend the district’s COVID-19 plan for another month, insults and curse words as well as words of support were shouted at the board, prompting a brief recess.

Superintendent Brian Yearwood said lifting the mask mandate may be a future possibility as vaccines are made available to students ages 5 to 11.

“Good news is coming,” Yearwood said.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended a micro-dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children. Yearwood said that as vaccine clinics open and younger children get the shot, there may be a possibility of removing the mandate. However, he confirmed the district will continue to follow the recommendations of medical experts and did not give a specific timeline for any changes.

The current plan, which gives the district superintendent the authority to direct a mask mandate, has been in place since mid-August and has been heavily debated this school year.

During the public comment session before the board vote, eight of 16 speakers — including state Rep. Cheri Toalson Reisch, R-Hallsville — were against the mandate.

Laurel Sommer, a family physician, asked why children 12 and older who have been vaccinated must continue wearing masks.

“You keep holding the carrot in front of us and saying ‘in the future,’” Sommer said. She cited her concerns about the continued mask mandate. Board President Helen Wade recommended Sommer follow up with the board via email to discuss the issue more.

Seven people voiced their support for the mask policy. Mary Ratliff, president of the local NAACP chapter, thanked the board for its continued implementation of a mask mandate and apologized for the criticism the board has faced.

“You’re trying to do what is best for our children,” Ratliff said.

James Elliot, a parent in the district, did not take a clear stance on the mask mandate, but he did voice his concerns over the district not answering parent emails with questions about COVID-19 policies. He then announced he will file his candidacy for the April 2022 School Board election when filing opens Dec. 8.

Before the meeting, 17 people voiced their support for continuation of the mask policy via email or other means, and 14 commented against it.

Since August, district cases of COVID-19 have been highest among elementary students. However, as the year has gone by and mitigation policies have remained in place, numbers have decreased.

On Sept. 13, the evening of the first board meeting since school started, 38 elementary students had the virus and 169 were in quarantine. As of late Monday, 15 elementary students had the virus and 94 were in quarantine, according to the district tracker.

Critical race theory

State Rep. Chuck Basye*, R-Rocheport, said in a phone call Monday afternoon that he decided to come to Monday night’s meeting after a friend told about him a rumor that he was already going.

During general public comment session, Basye criticized the district for teaching curriculum that echoes the messages of critical race theory and 1619 Project curriculum. This was not the first time Basye has criticized the district.

“The Missouri state legislature is going to take action on this,” Basye said.

However, district spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said Monday afternoon that the district is not teaching, and does not plan to teach, critical race theory or 1619 in the curriculum.

“The board is not considering CRT, so that’s why it’s not on the agenda,” Baumstark said.

Other familiar voices spoke, including state Rep. David Tyson Smith, D-Columbia, and Chimene Schwach, a district parent who recently announced candidate for state representative.

“It’s OK to teach American history, it’s OK to talk about racism and slavery,” Tyson Smith said. “It’s not OK to discriminate against certain kids.”

IEP/504 recording policy

As expected, the Columbia School Board formally adopted a state-mandated recording policy that permits parents to record Individualized Education Plan or 504 plan meetings. The revised policy comes as part of a state law that took effect in August. Parents have been able to record these meetings since the law went into effect, so the adoption of this policy was a formality for the district.

The law states that districts may ask parents to notify it of plans to record a meeting “no more than” 24 hours before it takes place. The policy that the Columbia district adopted will ask parents to notify it “at least” 24 hours in advance, according to board documents. **Michelle Ribaudo brought this to the attention of the board and asked it to reword this part of the policy. The board did not make a recommendation to change the language of the policy and adopted it as is.

Robyn Schelp, president of Missouri Disability Empowerment, an advocacy group that lobbied to permit parent recordings, spoke in favor of the adoption of the policy but also acknowledged there are some existing flaws with it and its longevity.

“Policy needs to be written to withstand the test of time,” Schelp said.

  • K-12 Education reporter, studying international journalism. Reach me at sofizeman@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • K-12 Education reporter, studying investigative journalism and sociology. Reach me at jessicablakereports@gmail.com, on Twitter @JessicaEBlake or in the newsroom at 882-5700.

  • Assistant city editor, spring 2021. Studying print and digital news journalism. Reach me at skylarlaird@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5720.

  • Elizabeth Brixey is the Columbia Missourian's education editor and an associate professor in the Missouri School of Journalism. She can be reached at (573) 882-2632 and brixeye@missouri.edu.

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