The great mask debate: Stephenville ISD votes to make wearing face coverings optional.

Updated: Mar 20


By SARA VANDEN BERGE


Members of the Stephenville ISD board of trustees made a tough decision Monday night: They voted four to three to make wearing face coverings optional.


After hearing from several audience members on both sides of the issue, board member Keri Vanden Berge made a motion to change the district’s mask wearing policy from “required” to “recommended” for students in grades fourth through 12th and teachers and staff.

The motion was supported by board members Donny Hill, Scott Osman and Phyllis Stewart.


Dr. Robert Barberee, Dr. Ann Calahan and Sherrie Evans voted against the measure.


Citing advice from medical experts including Cook Children’s Medical Center, Barberee said he supports keeping the mandatory mask policy in place.


“Let’s continue to wear masks so we can finish the year strong and continue to do it face-to-face,” Evans said. “If one of our students died or if one of our teachers died because you are tired of wearing a mask… just think about that.”


But it wasn’t enough.


The audience erupted into applause when the board voted to end the mask mandate.


The board also voted to require students and staff that test positive for Covid or have been exposed to Covid by someone in their immediate household to quarantine for 10 days unless they have been fully vaccinated.


That vote was unanimous.

THE GREAT DEBATE


Prior to the vote, several students asked the board to reconsider the policy of requiring masks, but the discussion largely centered on how the policies affect teachers.


Nikki Light, a former kindergarten teacher and outspoken advocate for ending the mask policy, shifted her focus on Monday to the district’s educators she called the “backbone of the district.”


She pleaded for a change to the quarantine policy that puts additional work on teachers required to teach both virtually and inside the classroom.


Light said many teachers are afraid to voice their frustrations and are at a “breaking point.”

Brenda Burks spent 33 years as a high school teacher and was the first to encourage the board to keep the mask mandate in place.


She pointed out that most educators have still not been fully vaccinated and asked the board to base their decision on medical advice from experts.


“Keep students and teachers in a safe environment for the remaining 10 weeks of the school year,” Burks said.


After everyone had spoken, Superintendent Matt Underwood said he hoped to find a compromise.


“It’s been a long seven months; it’s been a long year,” Underwood said, adding that having to monitor the students for masks “is wearing on the staff” and that weeks of quarantine is impacting the quality of education some students are receiving.


He also said there are currently zero active cases in the district and that all but 10 staff members (who want the vaccine) have received at least one dose.


The remaining 10, he said, will have a chance to get a shot this week.

ON A PERSONAL NOTE


Decision-makers have it tough these days, especially when it comes to all things Covid.


Over the past year, I have watched every decision that has been made by local officials to world leaders dissected and questioned.


From mask mandates and stay-at-home orders to when and how we should reopen the economy and return to normalcy, everyone has an opinion.


And I get it, life has been hard; families have been separated and lives and businesses have been lost.


It’s been one gigantic nightmare no one ever could have predicted.

But no matter how you feel about tonight’s decision, place yourself in one of those seven chairs and imagine what it was like for each of those board members to make a decision you absolutely know will upset a lot of people.


Really think about that.


Then imagine having the guts to make those difficult decisions while the rest of us have the luxury of sitting back and placing judgment.


It’s been a long time since my youngest child graduated from Stephenville High School and it’s been an equally long time that I have sat through a school board meeting.


But tonight, I watched a group of citizens come together because they love our kids – a commonality that every person in that auditorium shared.


And that alone is something to celebrate.