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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Coeur d’Alene School Board opts against mask mandate amid hospital crisis

Ramsey Elementary students in Coeur d’Alene board their school bus after the first day of school, Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

A divided Coeur d’Alene School Board opted against requiring students to wear face coverings amid a spike of COVID-19 cases in North Idaho that is forcing hospitals to ration care.

Members of the district’s Board of Trustees voted 3-2 Monday night for a COVID-19 reopening plan that “strongly recommends” – not requires – masks.

The plan outlines the masking policy as well as social distancing recommendations, testing information, sanitation procedures and other protocol. The original plan had language saying masks would not be required, but trustees made one change to the draft plan prior to approving the document: Adding language to strongly recommend face masks.

Board Chair Jennifer Brumley proposed the amendment, citing downsides to masking children for an indeterminate period , the belief that there’s inconsistency among experts and scientists, and a lack of guidance from Gov. Brad Little and the state Legislature.

“The same science is where I have to ask myself, ‘How do I mandate student masking every day for seven hours when, before and after school, those children will be in restaurants, businesses and churches where people are packed together and not masked?’” she said.

There is widespread agreement among most medical professionals that masking is safe and effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 in schools. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are among organizations that recommend masks be required in schools.

Last week, Idaho enacted crisis standards of care in 10 North Idaho hospitals, including Kootenai Health, as COVID-19 patients continue to fill hospital beds across the region. Crisis standards of care allow hospitals to provide lower levels of care to some patients because they no longer have the ability to fully care for all .

In the Coeur d’Alene School District, there were 188 students and 15 staff members as of Monday who were out due to a positive COVID-19 test or potential exposure, according to the district’s COVID-19 webpage. The district has reported 123 positive cases since the week of Aug. 23.

Superintendent Shon Hocker said he believes the district is doing the best it can given the circumstances.

“I think it’s just important to recognize that even though we have these really alarming numbers that we currently have today, we’ve been in school four days. Five days, counting today,” Hocker said. “The likelihood of that spread occurring and generating those numbers by us opening our doors at school last Tuesday is very slim. Those kids came in contact or parents, whatever the reason, came in contact prior to school starting.”

The board’s decision Monday night followed a public comment period with speakers with opposing views of the mask debate. Brumley said trustees have been intimidated and bullied by members of the public on both sides of the issue.

Trustee Lisa May, who voted against the plan along with Vice Chair Rebecca Smith, said the rise of COVID-19 cases throughout Idaho contributed to her decision to oppose. The plan passed with a 3-2 vote.

She also said her decision went beyond the mask policy , saying she believes the plan doesn’t have the types of measures required by other schools without mask mandates.

“I believe if we can implement more mitigation strategies, we also could go without masks when our positivity rate again declines to where it was in June and July,” May said. “We have never seen this rapid of an increase in cases in our community.”