GOSHEN COUNTY – Goshen County School District No. 1 will request a variance, allowing students to remove masks when seated behind three-sided plexiglass on their desk, which deviates from state public health guidelines of wearing a mask when a separation of at least six feet is not possible.
The motion passed 8-1 at an Aug. 4 special board meeting, followed by the approval to purchase 1,470 plexiglass desk dividers after an 8-1 vote.
Superintendent Ryan Kramer said just 10% of GCSD classrooms can allow students to maintain a safe social distance of at least six feet. The plexiglass, which will be paid for with CARES Act funding, will give students a break from wearing masks. Masks will still be worn in communal spaces, including busses and hallways, he said.
“It is not probably prudent to expect any students, especially kindergarten through fifth grade, to be able to wear a mask for seven hours straight,” Kramer said. “And so we would want to try to provide those options for mask removal and breaks throughout the day.”
The plexiglass will sit on students’ desks, covering the front and both sides. Board Chair Katherine Patrick said dividers will be 23 inches high, 22 inches wide and 19 inches deep. In some instances, students might eat lunch with them either in the classroom or cafeteria. High school and middle school students will carry the divider with them from class to class and be expected to disinfect them at the end of the day, Kramer said.
Some trustees expressed concerns about how sanitary the dividers will be, but County Health Officer Dr. Marion Smith called it “a viable option.” While Smith acknowledged kids will have trouble wearing masks, considering she sees adults in her office having the same trouble, she said there is no evidence guaranteeing efficiency of plexiglass due to the unprecedented circumstances presented by the novel coronavirus pandemic.
“I don’t think we really have evidence about anything, that’s really the factor here,” Smith said. “We think a barrier’s better than no barrier. I’m sure there’s no controlled studies that have shown one way or the other.”
Trustees expressed concerns about masks hindering education for those who have trouble hearing or elementary school students for whom reading lips for “letter development and demonstration” is prudent. Kramer offered two possible solutions: teachers can remove their masks when students are behind plexiglass and at least six feet away, or they can wear see-through masks.
He also noted GCSD classrooms are already equipped with sound systems, so teachers could wear microphones if needed. Because of this, and classroom set up, instruction will be different this school year.
“We’re going to have to adjust the way that we deliver instruction in most classrooms because we’ve been moving progressively over the last 10 to 20 years to not have everyone in a row, sitting straight,” Kramer said. “We’re really entering back into that situation where that will be the common delivery.”
After voting to implement plexiglass dividers in lieu of masks when students are seated, Kramer opened the floor to trustees who might’ve had other variances or exemptions to request.
Trustee Jeff McClun made the motion to allow parents and families to apply for exemption from wearing a mask throughout the day without providing medical documentation or proof that wearing one would affect their education.
Smith spoke in opposition to this idea, saying families have already asked her to write notes exempting their children.
“I don’t wear a mask to protect myself, I wear masks to protect you,” Smith said. “And if you don’t wear a mask, then I’m at risk. So I don’t know that that’s going to work.”
Kramer said he was hesitant about the motion, because high risk individuals might not be able to attend school with unmasked peers in communal areas.
“One concern I would have is that I do know and have seen the medical documentation that we will be eliminating students from school because their doctors have said, if masks are optional, we can’t count on you being able to attend,” Kramer said. “And that unfortunately takes choice out of it.”
Trustee Rod Wagner affirmed McClun’s suggestion. Although he has a great-granddaughter and two grandsons in the school district and said he “cares and prays for his fellow school board members,” Wagner said he believes parents should be able to decide whether or not their kids wear masks.
“I’m not politicizing this,” Wager said. “But we have to realize, God is in control. He will facilitate, you’re not just going to get [COVID-19] for no uncertain reason.”
Others invoked the Constitution, stating the government cannot force citizens into decisions about their or their family’s health care.
Patrick disputed that point, expressing concern about “medically fragile students and medically vulnerable adults” who will be onsite with those opting not to wear masks.
“Typically, the courts have interpreted Constitutional rights as absolute until they create a danger for someone else,” Patrick said. “And it seems as though this has the potential to create a danger for other people. Requiring folks to come to work or to attend school with students who may be carrying a virus, which is potentially lethal to someone, does not fall within your Constitutional rights.”
Additionally, the district could be susceptible to lawsuits in this situation, she said.
“If we were to proceed against the recommendations of the State Board of Health, we would absolutely be liable,” Patrick said. “And I would be happy for anyone who does not want their child to wear a mask to pool up their money and indemnify the district against any of those lawsuits. That would be a show of good faith.”
Ultimately, the motion failed in a 5-4 vote, meaning the only way students can be exempt from wearing a mask are those with documented medical reasons or legitimate hindrances to education, Kramer said. Students without these exemptions who refuse to wear masks will be disciplined with a dress code violation. If they continue to refuse, the district will explore “alternative learning opportunities,” such as remote education.
Educators and students will have the opportunity to teach and learn remotely. Teachers must have documentation from a health care professional showing there are medical concerns rendering them fit for remote instruction. Only a certain number of educators can do so, depending on how many students opt to learn remotely. There will be preference for those with medical needs, followed by certification and seniority, Kramer said.
GCSD’s school year is set to begin in-person on Aug. 18 with the hopes of all students being in classrooms at once, thanks to plexiglass dividers and masks when moving about.
“This is such a dynamic process, the answers to these questions will probably be different tomorrow,” Smith said. “I mean we just have to go forward with what we think is the best thing to do for ourselves and for our community.”