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School board approves 3 weeks of mask wearing for Mountain Home students

The school board voted 3-2 at a special meeting Tuesday to require masks inside at all schools in the district until the end of September.

MOUNTAIN HOME, Idaho — After three weeks of school without wearing a mask, students in the Mountain Home School District will mask up for the next three weeks as COVID-19 cases are on the rise. There are some exceptions.

The school board voted 3-2 at a special meeting of the Board of Trustees Tuesday evening after about an hour of discussion on the subject. The meeting was open to the public but comments were only accepted via email.

Superintendent James Gilbert told the board that the average daily attendance has declined from 95% in the first week down to 86% by the third week. And so far, they’ve had 462 students told to quarantine. Those are students who’ve been in close contact (three feet) of someone with the virus for more than 15 minutes. They must quarantine for 10 days but can return to school after five days with a negative COVID test.

Gilbert says overall that amounts to around 24,720 lost hours of instruction. As of Tuesday morning, there have been 107 positive COVID student cases, 14 total staff cases and 10 more staff members in quarantine.

“One of the things that we’re seeing with this is a tremendous increase in staff absences for the first three weeks of school. We are sitting at 195 absences for employees,” Gilbert said. Compare that to 170 absences during the same time period in 2019, pre-COVID. He says that’s “pretty substantial.”

One of the big issues facing Mountain Home School District is staffing. The district has only about 30 active substitutes and is also facing a bus driver shortage. Gilbert says many other districts around the state are dealing with staffing shortages. He said every time a bus driver is out sick they run the risk of some routes not being served and students having to stay home.

Before voting on the mask mandate in school, the board held a cordial discussion on exploring other mitigating options as an alternative to a mask mandate. However, other than social distancing and disinfecting surfaces in the classroom, no other options were brought up.

The board did take a vote on a motion to keep masks optional and eliminate the quarantine process, but it failed on a 3-2 vote. The board then took up the motion to require students to wear masks while inside for the next three weeks, starting Sept. 9 and running through Sept. 30.  

Gilbert told board members that Mountain Home needed its own data on whether masks in school would reduce the spread of the virus, and this should give them enough time to get that data, compare it to the first three weeks and report back to the board.

There are a couple of exceptions to the new mask mandate. Students will not be required to wear a mask during physical activity such as PE. And students can get a medical-documented exemption. 

The second motion passed on a 3-2 vote.

"I'm not trying to make any of this political, our goal is to keep the doors open for the kids in Mountain Home," Gilbert said.

As for written comments, board members were told that six people were for masks, while six were against. Two more expressed support for hybrid learning.

The school board scheduled its next meeting to review the data on Oct. 4.

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