DOUGLAS — In a 3-2 vote, the Douglas Unified School District Board agreed to continue its face covering policy.
The approval was made at the Oct. 5 school board meeting and went into effect Oct. 6. Board members Jana Selchow and Mitch Lindemann were in favor of the mandate; Dr. Ed Gomez and Mario Ramos were against. Board president Ray Borane cast the deciding vote in favor of the mandate. Face coverings are now required for all staff, students and visitors while indoors on any district property or event..
The policy became optional for several days when Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order prohibiting face coverings went into effect Sept. 29.
On Oct. 4, DUSD released numbers showing there were six active COVID cases (three students, three staff) within the combined student and staff population of 4,084 in the district.
On Aug. 18, a resolution, which came from the DUSD attorney, was approved by the board 5-1 at a special meeting. It went into effect Thursday, Aug. 19, where it remained until Sept. 28, the day before Gov. Doug Ducey’s executive order prohibiting face coverings went into effect. From Sept. 29 until Oct. 5 face coverings were optional in DUSD.
Discussion on face coverings lasted more than an hour while the board discussed whether or not to reinstate the policy. Several community members also spoke; some were flat-out against reinstating the policy while others wanted it to be their choice.
“Masks have been very controversial for districts, not only here in Douglas, but across the nation,” said Ana Samaniego, DUSD superintendent. “You have some parents wanting masks and mandating that we enforce masks, and at the same time you have parents that are against it and want it to be their choice. The mask mandate doesn’t allow for choice. Everybody is expected to wear a mask while indoors.”
Dr. Darlene Melk, a pediatrician for Chiricahua Community Health Centers Inc. in Douglas, supported the mandate. While speaking before the board, she wore a face covering.
“I’m here as a parent of two elementary-age school children, a kindergarten and third-grader, but I am also here as a pediatrician who has served this community for 11 years,” she said. “Sadly, COVID is not over. To date we have had 77,556 hospitalizations in the state of Arizona, just under 3,000 were under the age of 20. Just last week we had levels of transmission positivity rates of about 9% of all the tests that were being done. We’re definitely in a high transmission state. Masks are effective at reducing transmission. Nothing is perfect, this is all about mitigating and decreasing risks.”
She said that she’d like to remove her face covering as much as many others would like to. Yet she said she understands we wear them and get vaccinated to not only protect ourselves but others we love.
Jesus Duarte, whose wife Joanie is a pre-kindergarten teacher in the DUSD, spoke out against the “forceful masking of our children.” He chose not to wear a face covering while addressing the board.
“I’m hoping we’re still protected under the parents bill of rights, which was enacted by the 49th Arizona Legislature,” he said. “DUSD has yet to demonstrate compelling evidence for masking up our children. COVID is less of a threat to children than accidents and the common flu. The survival rate for American children with confirmed places is approximately 99.99%. The Center for Disease Control estimated that masks mandates in schools are associated with roughly about 20% reduction in COVID cases through their effectiveness.”
Duarte said the long term harm to kids from masking is potentially enormous.
“Masking is a physiological stressor for children and disrupts learning,” he said. “Covering the lower half of the face on both teacher and pupil reduces the ability to communicate. Children lose the ability of mimicking expressions, an essential tool of non-verbal communication. Bonding between teacher and student take a hit. Masking exacerbates that a child would experience anxiety and depression, which are already at pandemic levels.
“It is not right that for the safety of the adults, we are putting this onus on the kids. The kids are not the ones that are transmitting it. Knowing that our staff had the opportunity to be vaccinated, they should be safe and embracing the smiles of our kids and not be afraid to put such pressure on our kids to keep us adults safe. We should keep them safe and let them enjoy their childhood.”
Dora Cortez, a parent of a student attending Ray Borane Middle School, stated she’s in favor of choice.
“(My daughter) has a terrible rash on her face because of wearing the mask,” she said. “She is a volleyball player and was told ‘no mask, no play.’ I find that illogical because we have our football players at the high school that are more physical and yet, they don’t wear a mask.”
Cortez added that COVID and masking issues are a hot mess, and it seems not many people know what they are doing.
“I do believe the masks are affecting our children,” she said. “They had picture day, and she didn’t want to take her mask off because of her rash. I am not anti-mask. I am pro-choice. I believe that as a parent I have the right to have my daughter not wear a mask if she doesn’t want to.”
Through an email submitted to the board, Joanie Duarte expressed some frustrations she has experienced as an educator when working with her students while wearing a mask.
“I am a believer in masks being kept optional, where parents can choose what is in the best interest of their own child, rather than a school board deciding for everyone,” she said. “I understand people are concerned about COVID, but attend any other event in town or other nearby towns for that matter, and you will see families without masks.
“It’s ironic is to me is that people believe it is fine for no mask out of school but in school, where so much of a child’s development relies on facial expressions, development of language and building relationships, we all need to be masked up. In my opinion, it is depressing to think that the 3-year-old students I have this year may go through their entire first five formative years of development masked-up in school.”
Duarte shared an experience she had with a student she was trying to help with developing his speech and articulating his words. She was having difficulty because of the mask despite sitting next to each other.
“Because he could not see my mouth he was practicing wrong,” she said. “This is a part of my job that can’t be done with masks. I believe that those who want to send a child to school in masks should have that right. Those who do not, they also have that right.”
Melissa Rodriguez, principal at Douglas High School, stated that in a one-month period, her staff gave out more than 1,500 masks yet had to borrow from other schools because they were running low.
“My concern is that if we make it mandatory we will not have enough masks to go around whereas if we make it optional, then we will have enough for those that need them,” she said. “We have a lot of families that send their child to school without a mask. The availability of masks is a concern.”
Rodna Lamadrid, principal at RBMS, stated she, too, is running low on masks.
“We average giving out one to two boxes a week,” she said.
Samaniego stated additional masks have been ordered. Since DUSD is on fall break this week, she said that should help getting masks replenished.
School board member Lindemann shared some information he read recently from the CDC that stated schools that do not have a mask mandate are 3 1/2 times more likely to have an outbreak than those that don’t.
I’m afraid if any school has an outbreak, then that shuts the school down,” he said. “I’d hate to see that happen.”