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Montezuma-Cortez decides on two-week mask mandate for students

School board OKs student mask mandate beginning Monday, allows board to vote by phone for remote learning

The Montezuma-Cortez School District RE-1 Board of Education voted Friday to approve a two-week mask mandate for students beginning Monday and approved a motion to allow board members to vote on emergency remote learning orders by phone.

Masks will be mandatory through Oct. 15.

Board member Cody Wells made the motion, and the board voted 4-1, with board member Sheri Noyes voting against the motion because of the mask mandate portion of the proposal, which was added to the original action item.

The board saw the mandate as a compromise to keep students in schools.

“Sheri, I think that if we did the two weeks of masking, it would then again prove exactly what you and I have been saying: that the masks aren’t going to help,” board member Tammy Hooten said.

The vote came after the board called for an emergency meeting to discuss giving Superintendent Risha VanderWey the authority to shift schools into remote learning as needed.

In the virtual meeting Friday morning, board members also weighed in on workforce shortages and COVID-19 as factors in the decision.

“This is not about the virus, this is more about our workforce,” VanderWey said.

VanderWey is reaching out to the community to source help during the staffing shortage, and the board discussed implementing more outreach efforts to get more parents on board to help in classrooms, like sending out a parent letter.

On Friday, 45 teachers were out of the classroom and 16 were without substitutes, VanderWey said. At times, she has relied on district office employees to help cover classes. Teachers are out for a multitude of reasons — from cancer to seeing family to having their own kids quarantined, she said.

As of Friday morning, 156 students were quarantined. Twenty-two students and five staff tested positive for the virus.

Assistant Superintendent Lis Richard said that quarantines apply only to students. Staff must wear masks, and many are vaccinated.

She said quarantines have helped to reduce the spread of positive cases in students.

“If those kids are in school that would spread a lot more quickly,” she said.

Nevertheless, she said staff shortage is a more critical issue.

“Bring 156 kids back, and we still have a staff shortage,” she said.

VanderWey said the workforce shortage has been an ongoing problem in the district.

“The thing is, you couple workforce challenges with the recurrence of delta, and it becomes a very difficult situation and people are really stressed. People are at their wit’s end, and I’m just trying really hard to support my staff and I’m trying really hard to support my principals.”

The conversation shifted to masking, as School Board President Sherri Wright proposed requiring students to wear masks beginning Monday for two weeks to reduce the amount of students in quarantine.

“Masking always helps,” VanderWey said. “Mandatory masking – I’ve asked to do that.”

Remote learning disrupts a child’s education and family life, Wright said.

“I’m very anti-masking, but if this will get us over the hump I could see that,” she said.

Board member Stacey Hall agreed, saying she’s also against masks, but was willing to compromise.

“I’m against masking, but we have got to to do something to keep these kids in school,” she said. “We have continued to talk about research and this way and that way but research also shows that if our students are not on reading level by the third grade, they’re lost. We’re losing kids.”

She said she’s heard from teachers who are opposed to masks, but currently want masking to keep kids in school.

Hooten also said she would be willing to compromise, and even proposed requiring student masking for the two weeks following Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks.

VanderWey said that she thinks teachers would feel safer with kids wearing masks, based on petitions the district has received.

Board member Noyes said that while she would be willing to hold as many emergency meetings as needed, she didn’t want to give VanderWey the power to close schools.

“We’re not going to make everybody happy,” she said. “If we go to remote we will lose kids, if we don’t go to remote we will lose kids, if we go masking we lose kids — if we don’t — we’re not going to please everyone.

The board decided it didn’t want to give VanderWey the authority to initiate school closures without their approval. Instead, they decided, if VanderWey felt there was a need to close a school, she would call Wright, and Wright would then call each board member from there to cast an immediate vote.

“I don’t want to worry people – I’m not saying we’re going into remote learning right now,” VanderWey said. “Remote learning is really challenging to do.”

She said that she believes in in-person learning, but wanted to be able to make the call quickly if necessary, like in a situation where a school found itself significantly short-staffed last minute.

“This is not for today, but I can’t say what’s going to happen in the community in the next 10 days,” she said.