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Lawrence school board candidates sound off on district’s mask mandate

Article updated at 10:05 p.m. Friday, July 30, and at 9:49 a.m. and 2:54 p.m. Saturday, July 31:

Just a few days remain until the primary election will narrow a dozen school board candidates down to six. That’s coming up Tuesday, Aug. 3.

As COVID-19 cases have been on the rise again, the Lawrence school district has updated its COVID-19 protocols. The district is now requiring anyone ages 2 and up to wear masks while they’re inside district buildings, regardless of their vaccination status.

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Mask mandates have been a contentious topic throughout the past year-plus, so the Times asked the candidates for Lawrence school board Friday:

What do you think of the district’s now-universal mask mandate based on updated CDC guidelines, and, if elected, based on COVID-19 conditions today (and with the understanding that those conditions could change for better or for worse by November), would you encourage district administrators to lift the mask mandate or keep it in place?

Don’t forget to vote!

You can still vote early from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. tomorrow (Saturday, July 31) or from 8 a.m. to noon Monday at the old courthouse, 1100 Massachusetts St., or at the new elections office, 711 W. 23rd St., No. 1 (at 23rd and Louisiana streets).

Regular polling places will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Tuesday. Douglas County residents can check their voter registration and find their Election Day polling place at this link.

Here’s what they said:

(Candidates’ responses given in alphabetical order by last name)

Melissa Clissold: “I support the District’s mask mandate. I want us to do everything we possibly can to avoid remote learning again and to keep our students and staff safe. I would rather be in person in a mask than see our families forced back into a stressful remote learning model. I would encourage administrators to keep the mandate in place and reevaluate if the CDC guidelines change.”

Kay Emerson: “Supporting students’ preferred method of study is a stand I fully support. We know simply that some students perform best with the in-person instructional model and as a community we should do what we can to protect this choice. It just so happens in this situation we are able to multitask and take care of the overall health of Lawrence and do our part to stop the spread. My thought on USD 497’s decision is that it is based on science and advice from our local, state and federal health professionals and scientists across the country, who are observing areas much more in harm’s way than ours. I will take the opportunity to say I trust the facts and history here that says if we don’t start some way to mitigate the risks it can quickly become worse.

“To be specific the district has outlined a total of 28 precaution procedures including mask mandate. Within the mask mandate there are a total of nine guidelines that inform our students, staff and families about the general expectations including how to request mask exemption and what may happen in our SPED classrooms. This plan I do support, although I might suggest researching the distance between students, staff to students, and what this may do in some of our learning environments, specifically our elementary buildings. So we can start ahead before the school year starts. The plan put forth is worth supporting because it keeps our schools open and lowers the possibility of the number of disruptions in our learning.

“Now as to the future, this is up to us the community to decide. I will stand with science when it comes to what to do next as COVID 19 is a moving target and I look forward to seeing the work continue on the district committees that I sit to be able vet out these questions with input from the collective community. Still, I urge our district leaders to continue to take action by make plans and communicate out specifics such as what learning will look like for students in quarantine or if staff are sick. We need to continue to actively plan and make public our contingency plans. We must stay hopeful but we must be prepared.”

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GR Gordon-Ross: “I am in favor of the universal mask mandate. During our board meeting last week, (Superintendent Dr. Anthony) Lewis stated that he would be mindful of recommendations from both national and local health officials. Both the CDC and the Lawrence/Douglas County Health Department updated their recommendations. Dr. Lewis then did what he said he would do which was to review those updates and make the necessary adjustments. LDCHD is our best source of local, specific health advice for what’s happening here – followed by state and national recommendations.

“I would continue to encourage Dr. Lewis and the administration to follow the advice of local, state and federal agencies when making these decisions and when in doubt, to err on the side of caution.”

Kelly Jones: “Unity on COVID-19 safety protocols is crucial to keeping our schools safe and fully in-person.

“I support our district leadership’s dedication to 2021-22 fully in-person schools with safe, inclusive learning environments. They work closely with local health officials and our legal counsel to establish COVID-19 protocols for students, staff, their families, and our community. The current mask protocols adhere to CDC and other health authorities, like the American Academy of Pediatrics, guidelines. The district shared it’s prepared to shift toward more or fewer restrictions based on the specific circumstances of Douglas County. As a board member, that makes sense to me. It also makes the most sense to me that every eligible Lawrencian should be vaccinated. If you are not, please start the vaccine series before the August start of school.”

Markus Logan: “So the question is whether I would choose to follow the CDC guidelines for wearing masks or not? Let’s call them by their name, the Center for Disease Control. They inform the nation of critical information and the district has to issue mandates very rarely. We have been dealing with, and continue to deal with this virus and its mutated versions. I wouldn’t encourage district administrators to lift a mask mandate for my own personal beliefs or feelings about it. I’d have to go with the science. This is not a political issue, it is a safety issue for students, staff, and families at home. Make decisions off the data and not personal feelings. As much as we like to believe things are or should be back to normal, they clearly aren’t yet. If conditions change and improve and safety of others is no longer an issue, then by all means lift mask mandates. Until then, let’s go with what we know.”

Nate Morsches: “I support wearing masks. I believe in their benefits in protecting the community against COVID. I am a Registered Nurse, and I have seen with my own eyes people’s lives decimated by this disease. I believe people should wear masks considering the recent rising COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.

“However, I am not in support of the current mask mandate.

“I believe in the law, and I believe in freedom, meaning we should all be law-abiding citizens but that outside of the law, there should be freedom. At this time, there are no federal or state laws which would obligate our school district to compel people to wear masks. Until laws such as this exist, I would encourage district administrators to lift the mask mandate.

“I believe people should choose to wear masks, but I’m not in favor of stripping people of their freedom to make that choice.”

Andrew Nussbaum: “I support the mask mandate and I would encourage district administrators to keep it in place.”

Doug Redding: “Public health is PARAMOUNT.

“(Sorry for yelling.) Mask mandate stays. Seriously.”

Elizabeth Stephens: “Great question. I would support the mask mandate in accordance with the CDC recommendations. Although no one is excited to wear a mask, it is a small thing we can all do to keep our community safe and our children in schools.”

Travis Tozer: “Thanks for doing this as I feel that it was something needed to be brought up. Even before the district changed their mask policy way back on Monday, I had resolved to tell my kids to wear their masks all day every day while at school. I just didn’t feel comfortable with the spreading Delta variant and my youngest being too young to take a vaccine. So, I was frankly glad to see the policy changed.

“As a board member, I intend to err on the cautious side when it comes to children’s safety. I would continue to support the universal wearing of masks in school buildings until Covid-19 is finally on the decline in Douglas county.”

Myranda Zarlengo: “Mask or no mask let’s get kids in school and remain in person for the entire year. Many students are behind and need to get back on track. When those doors open in 3 weeks let’s make sure the schools are really ready to supporting our students academically and emotionally.   Let’s make sure all students feel welcome. We need to focus on education and building up their confidence to be successful learners this year.”

Candidate Leticia Gradington has not responded to the Times’ phone messages or emails to be included in our coverage, nor participated in candidate forums the Times has seen. Jones’, Morsches’, Zarlengo’s and Clissold’s answers were added after initial publication.

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The candidates answered a somewhat similar question during a forum held on July 7.

Over the past three weeks, the numbers of cases have changed — there were 57 known active cases of COVID-19 in Douglas County the day of the forum, compared to 306 on Friday — and the candidates’ answers may have changed, too. However, the forum recording is available below.

The question starts at 20:28.

More coverage:

Mac Moore / The Lawrence Times

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Lawrence school board candidates sound off on district’s mask mandate

We asked the Lawrence school board candidates what they think of the district’s now-universal mask mandate and, if elected, would they encourage district administrators to lift the mask mandate or keep it in place?

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