Masks mandated for jr./sr. high

Ron Burtz
In a two-hour special meeting held Saturday morning, the Custer School District Board of Education voted to mandate the wearing of masks by all students and staff at Custer Jr./Sr. High School for two weeks. The action was taken in response to an outbreak of COVID-19 primarily impacting junior high students. 
Five confirmed cases and three cases of what superintendent Mark Naugle called “student-to-student spread” of the virus in the junior high led to sending home about 60 students who had been in close contact with the infected students on Thursday. The “close contact” students were to stay home for 10 days to avoid infecting other students in case they had contracted the illness. 
The school board held a rare emergency meeting Wednesday at noon to act on the situation and decided to close all Custer schools Thursday while school officials plotted their next move. Following a meeting of jr./sr. high staff Thursday, the special meeting was set for Saturday to consider the staff’s recommendation.
When the meeting convened at 9 a.m. in the regular school board meeting room at the Armory, more than a dozen teachers, administrators and parents were in attendance along with the entire school board, either in person or by phone. Board president Heather Grace attended by phone because she reportedly has COVID-19, so the meeting was called to order by vice-president Michelle Lehman. 
Only two items were on the meeting agenda: an alternative schedule for the jr./sr. high proposed by the staff as a way to provide more social distancing and discussion/action on moving to category two of the district’s COVID-19 Operational Plan. Going to category two would have meant mandating masks. 
Naugle outlined the proposed alternative schedule which called for splitting students into two groups alphabetically and have one group attend school Mondays and Wednesdays and the other group attend Tuesdays and Thursdays. Principal Tobey Cass said that would reduce the daily student population in the already crowded building to about 200. 
The revised schedule was to be put into effect for the next two weeks in an effort to avoid shutting down the schools entirely in the event of widespread infections. 
“To me this is a plan that is workable,” said Naugle. “I don’t think any of us want to send healthy kids home.”
“This is not a huge surprise,” said Cass. “We knew this was going to happen. We have 60 kids at home who are perfectly healthy. This is a way to keep healthy kids in school and send home only the kids who test positive.” 
The board seemed to be on track to approve the temporary alternative schedule until a question from social science/computer teacher Chuck Arseneault altered the trajectory of the meeting. 
Arseneault suggested the school adopt a mask mandate which he said several districts around the state are already doing. 
Naugle responded that when everyone in school is masked, those who have been within six feet of an infected person for more than 15 minutes are no longer considered to be close contacts, which would mean they could stay in school. 
Over the next few minutes the focus transitioned from looking at an alternative schedule to putting everyone in masks as a way to keep more students in school. 
“The easiest thing would be to mask up,” said Cass. However, he noted there would probably be students who would stay home rather than have to wear a mask at school.
After extensive discussion involving board members, faculty and parents, as well as school nurse Becky Hove who was participating remotely, Grace made a motion that masks be mandates for the jr./sr. high building for only two weeks. The motion went through various amendments based on suggestions from board members, but finally passed unanimously.
The final version of the motion is as follows: 
• Mandate that all staff and students wear masks in school in the Custer 7-12 building Oct. 19-29. Classes will continue as normal.
• Students deemed close contacts with another student or staff member when both are wearing masks will not be sent home. They will be required to do a wellness check each day at the office. Parents of students deemed close contacts will be notified that their children were potentially exposed.
• Any student sent home last week (Oct. 12-15) as a close contact is welcomed back to school, but will need to check into school and do a daily wellness test until the end of their 10-day quarantine period.
• Both middle school and high school activities scheduled for Oct. 19-23  will be played. Students and other spectators are asked to follow social distancing recommendations/ protocols. 
School officials emphasized that the mask requirement is for a two-week period only and the situation will be re-evaluated with the guidance of Dr. Lisa Brown who has been advising Naugle on the situation. Naugle said Monday morning that there have been no new cases reported at the high school since Thursday, but there is one new case at the elementary school. He said that the board’s action Saturday effectively put the jr./sr. high into category two of the COVID operational plan for a two-week period. 
Activities director Joey Kortemeyer said she did not want to cancel sporting events, especially now at the end of the fall sports season because a cancelation counts as a forfeit. She said, however, that for volleyball games, each player is allowed two fans to attend the games and the school discourages other students from attending. 
In reference to last Wednesday’s emergency meeting, Naugle said this was the first one he had ever called in his tenure as superintendent. Special meetings require 24 hours notice by law, but emergency meetings can be called at a moment’s notice. Although the virus has not impacted the elementary school as seriously, Naugle said the board decided to close it as well Thursday because of the close proximity of the two buildings. School sports events were allowed to go forward as scheduled.

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