Columbia Public Schools to enact mask mandate
A temporary mask mandate will be reinstated in Columbia Public Schools starting next Tuesday and lasting through Feb. 4.
After sustaining in-person learning through record-breaking COVID-19 numbers, the district sent parents a note from Superintendent Brian Yearwood late Thursday afternoon announcing the switch to masks.
The decision ends a week of record substitute teacher shortages, student walkouts over health concerns and teacher reports of a myriad of COVID-19-related problems within schools.
Hickman sophomore Alex Fajen helped organize the protests this week in support of bringing back masks. “Considering how high cases are right now, I’m glad that they’re reinstating the mask mandate,” they said.
District spokesperson Michelle Baumstark said in an email to the Missourian that waiting until Tuesday to implement the mandate allows time to resupply schools in preparation for the mask mandate. Yearwood’s email made it clear that schools would continue providing masks for those who need them.
In Yearwood’s email to CPS parents, he said districtwide absence rates have steadily stayed at 20% of students absent each day. He also acknowledged the high rates of teacher infections.
Yearwood also urged families to comply with contact tracing procedures to reduce exposure. He told parents to review their children’s symptoms daily, complete morning self-check forms and keep students home when experiencing symptoms.
Yearwood also noted that under federal guidelines, masks are required on school buses.
Yearwood’s email said the Board of Education will consider formal adoption of the mandate and revisions to the district’s COVID response plan Jan. 20 at its regular work session meeting.
Fajen said the two-week expiration date for the mask mandate is frustrating. “COVID is disrupting our learning and disrupting teachers’ ability to teach. Less learning has been occurring because it’s not really possible to teach or learn when you have half the kids gone or a teacher who’s gone.”
Noelle Gilzow, president of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association and a teacher at Hickman High School, said it remains to be seen whether a two-week mask mandate is enough. “Hopefully, it means we have fewer teachers ending up as positive cases, since the need for subs would reduce.”
Gilzow emphasized “hopefully.”
“Right now people are in a mixed masking situation,” she said, referring to the option that students and teachers have to wear a mask.
“We don’t know yet who’s going to come down positive. If tests are still climbing halfway through next week, it might not be enough.”
Student protesters expressed similar concerns.
“CPS needs to maintain a mask mandate until we see COVID cases decline considerably,” a group of students from Hickman, Rock Bridge and Battle high schools stated in an email to the Missourian. “Just two weeks will do little in the long run to limit the spread of COVID in our schools. We say this not just to the CPS School Board but also to the Missouri State School Board and Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a mask mandate will save lives.”
Schmitt has taken legal action against several Missouri school districts, including CPS, over previous mask mandates that he argues are illegal.
Although the letter from the students says they will keep working, Fajen said protests at Hickman are on hiatus — for now.
“There’s still discussion going on amongst students who help organize the protests. We’re going to put a pause on it, but if the board lets it expire Feb. 4 and things aren’t looking better, the protests might start back up again.”