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Tetonia Elementary students take a mid-day mask break in March. The school board agreed on April 19 to amend the district rules to allow the removal of face coverings outside when social distancing is possible. 

At this Monday's meeting, Teton School District 401 Board of Trustees began a discussion around the rule that K-5 students must wear masks at recess if they want to play within 6 feet of one another.

Superintendent Monte Woolstenhulme began the conversation on April 12 with a presentation to the board on the latest Covid metrics and recommendations. He underscored the fact that the district's efforts have been successful in keeping numbers of infections very low. "The work we're doing is keeping us in school," he said, observing that neighboring districts have not shared in similar success. 

Teton Valley Health Infection Preventionist Nikki Ripplinger gave a brief presentation that echoed the superintendent's sentiment. She advocated for the district to continue adhering to the measures and policies recommended by Eastern Idaho Public Health, and applauded the county's achievement of reducing infection numbers and getting into the "Green" zone. "Our numbers have come down because of the mask mandate. I do believe that has been what's brought us down," she affirmed. "Keeping masks in place seems like a small price to keep our elderly safe and keep our kids in school."

Following Ripplinger's presentation, board member Jake Kunz made a request echoing a letter submitted to the board asking that students in K-5 grades no longer be required to wear masks during recess. The letter, written by Jerai Moulton and signed by 96 other community members, stated: "As the school year approaches an end, I would like you to consider and immediately take action to remove mask wearing & social distancing outdoors, especially for K-5 who still attend recess." 

Moulton continued: "Clearly I am an advocate for removing masks for our kids. But all I am asking is to let them have recess for the rest of the year. Let them have to option to ditch their masks and not have to social distance... If we don’t advocate for the kids, no one will."

While K-5 kids are required to wear masks if they're playing outside at recess because they can't social distance, they're also given mask breaks at different intervals throughout the day.

Kunz advocated for Moulton's position and encouraged the board to remove the mandate for K-5 students to wear masks during recess. An intense discussion followed, with trustee Alexie Hulme agreeing with Kunz and the letter signers, and others expressing reservations about making decisions that are not in alignment with recommendations from health professionals. 

Teton Education Association representative Angela Hoopes pleaded with the board to not make an unexpected decision without seeking input from the professionals in the classrooms. She shared the results of an informal survey of TEA membership that indicated over 85 percent of respondents wanted to keep mask mandates in place throughout the remainder of the school year. Hoopes explained that teachers felt these measures were in place to keep them safe, and any changes would increase their risk of exposure. "Don't make a snap decision in the middle of a board meeting," she said. "If you do this, you're going to have uproar in your staff." 

Ultimately, at the urging of the TEA and administrators present at the meeting, the board decided that such a change should not be made without getting feedback from teachers and administrators at the elementary level.

Board chair Ben Kearsley acknowledged that all sides had valid points and concerns, and agreed that the conversation would continue in a focused and civil manner at the next meeting. "My definition of success is: giving up what you want at the moment for what you really want in the future. So, as I listen to where we're at... I look at it and I think, what do we really want? Is it just about our youngest students having recess? Or do we want to keep the doors open and keep kids in school?" he asked. 

The board has scheduled a special meeting for 5:30 p.m. on Monday, April 19 to further discuss the issue. Parents, students, and district staff were sent a survey about mask-wearing earlier this week. The survey results will be presented to the board at Monday's meeting.