The Columbia School Board unanimously approved extending a mask mandate in school buildings and on school buses Monday evening as part of the district’s plan launched earlier to address the spread of COVID-19.
The mask mandate will be reassessed after about 30 days, spokeswoman Michelle Baumstark said. Right now, the decision to require masks remains the district’s, but, Baumstark said, that could change in the face of litigation.
In the lead-up to the vote, public commenters shared their views with the board.
“This should not be a political issue,” local NAACP President Mary Ratliff said. “It is about keeping our most precious commodity, our children, safe.”
Like the majority of commenters, Ratliff supported the district’s mask mandate and other mitigation strategies included in the 2021-2022 Coronavirus Plan.
Community member Pam Hardin said that “because the children wear masks, it makes me comfortable for my grandchildren to see their siblings.”
Charlotte Brown opposed the mandate. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” she said, “but by adopting mandatory masks, you may be opening the door up to another risk and hazard you haven’t fully contemplated.”
Before the meeting, 10 people, including two children, gathered outside district headquarters to protest the mandate.
Superintendent: COVID-19 update
Superintendent Brian Yearwood told the board that because of virus mitigation strategies in place, “we are able to start in person. It is critical to keep our scholars in schools learning from their teachers with their peers.”
Yearwood said that as of Sept. 2, about 79% of district employees were vaccinated against COVID-19, or 2,246 of the 2,835 employees.
As of late Monday, 373 students district-wide had COVID-19 or were in quarantine, according to the district’s tracker. Elementary schools had the highest rate of student infections. Of the 63 students with the virus, 38 were elementary students, and 169 elementary students were in quarantine. Seven staff members were isolated for testing positive, and eight more were quarantined.
Yearwood said some quarantine protocols were revised in July. The district requires 10-day quarantines for those exposed to COVID-19 or seven days if the person tests negative between days five and seven without symptoms. Both protocols require the exposed person to wear a mask until 14 days after the initial exposure, and a negative PCR test must be submitted to the school nurse before the student returns to class.
“The revised protocols intend to balance the critical issue of safety while keeping our scholars in school,” Yearwood said.
Yearwood addressed COVID-19’s impact on the district’s bus driver shortage.
“If anyone out there is considering being a bus driver, substitute teacher, paraprofessional or teacher aide, there is no better time to apply than now — I’m thinking of driving the bus myself,” he joked, prompting a laugh from the audience.
Board member Della Streaty-Wilhoit took a moment to address the gravity of the past year.
“This is not science,” she said. “This is feelings, this is emotions, this is tears, and they may be tears to the right or left.”
CoMo for Progress organizers Rebecca Shaw and Kate Canterbury presented a petition to the board advocating for approval of the Black Lives Matter and LBGTQ+ pride items in schools. The action was a response to removal of signage from Smithton Middle School and Rock Bridge High last month.
“The removal of these supportive symbols has sent a harmful message to the marginalized children and staff of these schools, showing a lack of support in their learning environment by both CPS administration and by the community,” the petition read.
The Facebook petition had a place for signers’ comments about racism and homophobia in the district, and Canterbury shared several. “Diversity is a fact, exclusion is an act,” she read.
The petition had more than 600 signatures as of Monday night.
The district’s chief financial officer, Heather McArthur, presented where COVID-19 relief funds under the American Rescue Plan will be directed as the district faces a $6.6 million revenue deficit. The loss comes as a result of Missouri Court of Appeals Case Blankenship v. Franklin County Collector, which prompted the district to decrease its property tax assumption rate.
“Over 50% of our revenue is from our personal property taxes,” McArthur said. “Most of our money comes from local revenue.”
The board plans to receive a projected $23.5 million from the American Rescue Plan. McArthur predicts funds will be appropriated by the state legislature in October. Following a survey of district stakeholders, which analyzed where funds would be best spent, financing is slated to be used to promote outdoor learning, support student health and emotional services and learning loss intervention.
Board member Chris Horn said the use of funds is not set in stone. “We’ll hear about this more at finance committee, and we’ll hear about it more at board meetings,” Horn said.
A consideration to revise this year’s school calendar was approved Monday.
“This is probably the most significant change that this board will be making,” Jennifer Rukstad, human resources director, said.
Juneteenth is now a district holiday, to be observed next year on June 20 because June 19 falls on a Sunday. “As a black man from the South, as a CPS graduate, celebrating Juneteenth is something that thrills me,” board member David Seamon said.
Students will not have to make up school days missed for inclement weather; the district is switching from a daily to hourly system and will have enough time built in to cover any missed days.
The last day of school will be May 26.