Updated Aug. 23
With tearful testimonies and cries of, “Amen!” an Aug. 11 Cordova School Board meeting took on the atmosphere of a tent revival. About 45 members of the public gathered at the Cordova Jr./Sr. High School media center room for an opportunity to comment on the board’s decision to require students to wear masks when classes resume Wednesday, Aug. 25. Their feedback was strongly critical, with just one attestant offering a defense of the board’s decision.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines recommend universal indoor masking for teachers, staff and school visitors, as well as for students age 2 and older, regardless of vaccination status. Mask-wearing can reduce the chance of COVID-19 transmission by as much as 79%, according to a series of studies endorsed by the CDC. Cordova school administrators hope that, as the year progresses, it will be possible to reduce protocols like required masking, Superintendent Alex Russin said in an Aug. 9 public letter. There have been no instances of COVID-19 transmission traced to local school facilities.
Board president Barb Jewell thanked participants for taking the time to attend. Not all correspondence sent to the board was included in the board’s Aug. 11 meeting packet due to deadlines, she said. Additional correspondence will be included in the subsequent meeting packet. Jewell asked members of the public to address the board with the understanding that everyone present at the meeting had the best interests of children in mind. Some attestants paused to thank board members for their work before delivering criticisms of the board’s masking policy.
“We love this town, we love the people here, we love what there is to offer — but we don’t love what it’s becoming,” parent Allen Roemhildt told the board. “We don’t love the fear that is being instilled in our children.”
In his testimony, parent Tom Nothstine referred to a passage in Russin’s Aug. 9 public letter in which Russin described concerns that, without universal masking, more students and staff would be away from the classroom more often because unmasked close contacts are required to quarantine when COVID-19 cases arise.
“In other words, the masks are to prevent being quarantined,” Nothstine said. “The masks are to mitigate the school’s own mitigation strategy. You will be kicked out of the school for days for being an unmasked close contact of a COVID case, regardless of whether case or contact are actually sick. So, my children are to wear masks to protect themselves not, it seems, from an exceptionally dangerous virus, but from exceptionally disruptive CDC guidelines.”
Mitigation plans should be determined not by the number of COVID-19 cases, but by other metrics such as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths, Nothstine said. In support of this contention, Nothstine inaccurately claimed that The Cordova Times had reported zero COVID-19 deaths. One Cordova resident infected with the virus died Nov. 18, 2020. The person was admitted to hospital for non-coronavirus-related end-of-life care, where the virus was discovered during screening.
Criticisms of mask-wearing during sports activities were delivered by NorthStar Alignment chiropractor Rich Bingham; by Cordova Amateur Youth Athletic Corporation board member and former school board candidate Aaron Hansen; and by tee-ball coach and Cordova Little League safety chairman Chris Bolin.
“[My daughter] was looking forward to going to school this year,” Bolin said in an emotional testimony. “And when she heard that it was required to wear a mask… she didn’t want to go to school no more. It’s just heartbreaking, as a parent, to see your kid not want to go to school when she’s doing so good.”
Though it could be appropriate to wear masks while meeting to discuss plays, wearing a mask during athletic activity increases fatigue and decreases oxygen levels, severely reducing the ability to perform competitively, Bingham said. Parent Nicole Pallas-Nothstine said that her sons felt ill and coughed for hours after practicing basketball while wearing masks.
Mixed data has emerged on the effects of mask-wearing during exercise. A study published by the British Journal of Sports Medicine found that cloth face masks led to a 14% reduction in exercise time, a 29% decrease in maximal oxygen consumption and a decrease in maximal heart rate during treadmill running exercise. Researchers attributed these effects to the perceived discomfort associated with mask-wearing. Study participants reported sensations of increasing shortness of breath and claustrophobia at higher exercise intensities while wearing a cloth mask. However, a study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health found that mask-wearing had no discernible detrimental effects on exercise performance, on arterial oxygen saturation or on heart rate during stationary bicycle riding.
Although masking may increase discomfort and interfere with athletic performance, the CDC reported that wearing a cloth mask does not increase the level of carbon dioxide inhaled.
Ilanka Community Health Center medical director Dr. Ben Head described an incident earlier that day in which a 6-month-old child began crying upon seeing Head wearing a mask, but calmed down shortly after Head removed his mask. However, it’s possible that this was just coincidence, Head added.
“I was smiling, but he couldn’t tell,” Head said. “This is what children need: they need to see us smiling. They need to catch all our facial cues. There’s so much that I don’t think we even understand that they are absorbing every day that, with masks on, they don’t absorb… Now, we’ve flattened the curve, everybody who wants to be vaccinated is vaccinated. Everybody who’s immunocompromised or should be vaccinated — well, they’ve had their chance. And I feel like now it’s time that we put the kids first.”
Other parents also raised concerns about the possible mental and emotional effects on children of mask-wearing.
“Just the stress of sitting here — my heart is beating and I’m nervous, because I’m staring at a boardroom full of people with masks,” parent Andrea Manuel said. “Our children are doing that same thing every single time they go into a classroom.”
Some attestants made more extravagant claims about the drawbacks of required mask-wearing. Community member Kanji D. Christian asserted that such rules were signs of encroaching global tyranny, and offered board members a USB drive which he said contained a video clip of a doctor speaking about the pandemic.
William Deaton, Cordova Jr./Sr. High School 2020 valedictorian and local Republican Party precinct leader, and former school board candidate Emily Taylor also told the board that mask-wearing should not be mandatory for students.
Katrina Hoffman, president and CEO of Prince William Sound Science Center, was the only member of the public present who spoke up in favor of required masking. Hoffman urged those present to take their guidance from epidemiologists and other relevant experts. The fact that Cordova schools have not become hubs of virus transmission provides anecdotal evidence that student masking is effective, she said.
“Kids adapt to glasses, they adapt to braces, they adapt to wearing a cast, they adapt to wearing a mask,” Hoffman said. “[My son] was happy to go to school every day last year, and I do understand that some kids weren’t. I heard that from a dad tonight, and I feel sorry for that family. That’s an awful situation to be in. So is a pandemic.”
School will resume with students attending classes Monday-Thursday from 8:40 a.m.-3:40 p.m. Fridays will be available for functions such as staff and teacher training, parent-teacher conferences and part-day student activities. It’s expected that masks will not be worn nonstop throughout the day, with students removing their masks for snack and water breaks during class, for recess, for breakfast and lunch service, for restroom breaks and for periodic in-classroom “mask breaks,” Russin said.