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Caldwell School Board votes to recommend, not require, face masks

Board members say they will revisit the mask recommendation at future meetings if cases or covid-related absences begin to spike.

CALDWELL, Idaho — The Caldwell School District board voted Monday night to recommend staff and students wear masks when the 2021-2022 school year starts next week, but stopped short of mandating face coverings.

The unanimous vote came after trustees heard from doctors and Southwest District Health about the current covid-19 rate of spread in the community, and how it can affect children. The recommendation will apply to both those who are vaccinated and those who are not.

Trustees and Superintendent Dr. N. Shalene French said they believed masks gave the district the greatest chance of keeping their goal of having children in school in-person five days a week, although French warned that schools may quarantine or go remote if infections soar. Board members also said they will revisit the mask recommendation at future meetings - and could consider making face coverings mandatory - if cases or covid-related absences go up.

Cases are spiking across the region as the more infectious Delta variant of covid-19 gains steam. Almost 100% of those who end up hospitalized or seriously ill are unvaccinated, doctors and health officials say. 

Only about 40% of Idaho's population has gotten the covid-19 vaccine, which is not yet available for children under 12. 

"Until we have an approved vaccine for young children, they are going to be susceptible," said Dr. Lekshmi Venugopal of SWDH.

Cases in the district among those under 18 have nearly doubled since June, she said, with 145 pediatric cases in total last month. None of those required a hospital stay however, Venugopal said, and the Delta variant does not appear to cause more serious illness or an increased hospitalization rate among children. 

The doctor also shared studies focusing on school districts in Georgia, North Carolina, and Florida that showed spread of the virus dropped when masks were mandated.

Dr. Richard Augustus of West Valley Medical Center in Caldwell said the effectiveness of face coverings was clear. 

"I take care of covid patients daily in the hospital," he said. "I have intubated them, I have cared for them every day, and I have not acquired covid." 

Augustus added that there is no evidence that wearing a mask - even for long periods during the school day - was physically harmful.

"I know it has become a political issue and that has really complicated the decision, but I don't think there is a clear reason why kids cannot wear masks," he said. "In my experience, the kids have adapted quicker than the rest of us. They will do what they need to do: They want to be in school, they want to be with their friends, they want to be in the [school] environment." 

Dr. Kenny Bramwell, the system medical director at St. Luke's Children's Hospital, said he was concerned by what he was currently seeing in the hospitals.

"If you could come with me to the emergency department and see what I see on a day-to-day basis, I think your perspective would change a lot," he said. "I see so much suffering."

Bramwell said he hoped the trustees would consider not only the number of people who die from covid but also the "wounded percentage" - those dealing effects from the disease for weeks or months after they are well enough to leave the hospital. 

Patients are left with symptoms including "insurmountable fatigue," brain fog, and chest pain so searing that some return to the emergency room week after week asking medical staff to help them, he said. Often, there is little nurses and doctors can do.

"The flu doesn't figuratively kick people in the face, the way that covid does," Bramwell said. "You just do not want to get this disease."

In addition to slowing the spread of coronavirus, rates of RSV, strep throat, and other common ailments plummeted last year when most people were wearing masks, he said. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control have recommended masks in schools.

Bramwell urged trustees to make their decision based on health information, not the polarization that has gripped conversations about face coverings. 

"We have, in many ways, confused the ability to minimize infection with an imposition on people's personal freedoms, and that is unfortunate," he said. "Really, what the masks do is minimize the spread of viruses between people, and when we are talking about people who are too young to even have the option to be vaccinated, I think that is a small concession to ask everybody to wear masks so they can keep as many people safe as possible."  

The Boise School District board voted earlier this month to make masks mandatory for students and staff, while Nampa, Kuna, Vallivue and West Ada school districts are not requiring masks. 

Caldwell board members questioned how many teachers and students will opt to wear a mask if it is not mandatory, with one trustee suggesting that masks be required for the first two weeks, then reassessed after that. 

Ultimately, the board voted to start school with face coverings as only a recommendation, but keep an eye on case rates and change as needed. 

"As soon as those numbers get higher, we will meet again trustees, and do the best for our community," Chairwoman Marisela Pesina said. 

At KTVB, we’re focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus. To see our full coverage, visit our coronavirus section, here: www.ktvb.com/coronavirus.

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