USD 383 removes mask mandate for MHS

Kris Long, Print Editor-in-Chief

The USD 383 School Board voted to revise their Pandemic Response Plan to make masks optional for students and staff at Manhattan High East and West Campus — but not the middle and elementary schools — in a motion that carried 6-1 Wednesday night.

The revision to the plan comes after a steady decrease in COVID-19 metrics since the board considered it last on Sept. 15, with total cases decreasing from 14 the week of Sept 19-25 to nine the week of Oct. 3-9 and quarantines being nearly cut in half over the same period of time. The plan was also approved by the medical advisory board. 

“It’s almost promises made, promises kept,” Superintendent Dr. Marvin Wade said. “We said that we would watch the metrics, we want to keep schools safe and that’s the most important thing, but we will watch the metrics and when we see things get better we will be willing to try [removing the mandate].”

The amendment to the mask mandate only applies to the high school because all students at the high school level have had the opportunity to get vaccinated if they wanted to (assuming their parents allowed them), while most elementary and middle school students are not old enough yet. Therefore, masks will still be required for young students because they are all unvaccinated and vaccinated staff will continue to wear masks to protect young students and model behavior. 

The one exception to the lift of the MHS mandate is that students and staff are also still required to wear masks on the bus due to the crowded space.

The decision will be controversial, with most of the public divided on the issue. The district’s attempt to make good on its promises comes with criticism from both sides. 

“My biggest concern is the fact that the students who I think are not going to be wearing masks are the students who are most likely to be unvaccinated,” junior Ava Reese, who spoke during citizen comments, said, “along with the risk that is still going to be there for my friends who are still at risk even with the vaccine.” 

The motion passed despite 62% of teachers in a survey presented to the school board which reported wanting to keep that mask mandate for the time being. Their concerns varied, but mostly they pertained to division among students who did and did not continue to wear their masks and COVID-19 numbers spiking along with quarantines.

“When the day comes that I feel like we’ve gone for a good period of time and that everything seems like it’s settled down, I’ll be happy to get rid of it. But right now…  there’s so many question marks in my mind that I just don’t feel like it’s time to do it,” board member Kristin Brighton, who voted against the motion, said. “I’m afraid once we make it optional then most of the students will just quit wearing it, or the ones that maybe should be because of health problems or because of health problems in their families might not because they don’t want to feel ostracized or different from their peers.”

Another concern is that the new guidelines make quarantining much more complicated for unvaccinated students. Vaccinated students do not need to quarantine unless they are experiencing symptoms, but unvaccinated students will have different quarantine expectations based on whether they were masked, the distance they were from the person and the duration of time they were in contact.

“I know the students will figure it out and the staff will figure it out,” Wade said. “And that’s one of the reasons for picking Nov. 1 instead of next Monday. That gives us time…  [to figure out] some of the things we need to share with staff.”

The school board will revisit the mandate on Nov. 19, or earlier if Manhattan High sees a spike in COVID-19 metrics.