No actual vote for mask policy in Independence School District

Mike Genet

When the Independence School District decided in August on a mask requirement for the school year, the Board of Education did not vote on the matter, instead apparently agreeing to it in closed session. 

The mask requirement – for any person age 2 and older inside district buildings, excepting meals, vigorous activity and outdoor recess – has no timetable attached other than for the 2021-22 school year. 

According to minutes of the board's closed session Aug. 10, after Superintendent Dale Herl said his recommendation for the school year was a mask mandate for all students, there is no record of a vote by the board. A spokesperson confirmed to The Examiner there was no vote in closed session. 

Members of the public did not speak to the board regarding masks at the Aug. 10 meeting. They had instead been invited to email or write to board members – and board members received several pages worth of responses. 

The emails, sent over the course of a month and obtained by The Examiner through a records request, showed nine of 15 writers favoring masks, even accounting for messages sent after the district’s decision on masks. Several people sent separate or duplicate messages to some or all board members. 

Contacted later by The Examiner, two board members said “no comment” when asked if they would have voted in support of the mask policy, another deferred comment to Herl and others did not return messages seeking comment. 

Board Member Greg Finke, who was not present at that meeting, said “no comment,” as did Eric Knipp. Knipp did say the emails to the board showed a mix of for and against masks and said if the matter of masks came up again, members of the public could address the board in accordance with board policy.  

Messages, either voicemail or email, to board members Carrie Dixon, Jill Esry, Matt Mallinson and board president Denise Fears went unanswered.  

Board policy calls for people who want to address the board to submit a written request to the superintendent’s office a week before the meeting, generally held the second Tuesday of the month. 

One email writer, the teachers union president, thanked the district for the mask decision and asked to speak at the Sept. 14 meeting, which she did. That meeting, according to district minutes, Sarah Nelson said the school year has been “an exhausting struggle for everyone,” reiterated her thanks and added that the district is “doing what is best for students in the face of adversity.” 

Others who emailed in support of masks asked the district to help protect children who could not yet be vaccinated, as well as their circles of contact; to listen to medical professionals instead of “emotionally or politically charged voices;” and to have masks to help keep schools open, as virtual or hybrid learning is not desirable. 

One parent of two high school students, Pam West, said her children understand the importance of masking and are on board, “and I think their peers are too.”  

“My daughter struggled with virtual learning and needs the interaction with teachers to promote learning,” another parent, Stephanie Boothe, wrote.  

“My husband and I have done everything asked of us…My children don’t have the same options as my husband and I,” she also wrote. “Please protect the youngest of our fine district.” 

Another parent and mask supporter, former City Council Member Marcie Gragg, specifically requested her letter be part of the public record for the Aug. 10 meeting, since the district “chose to restrict the public’s ability to express its views in person at the meeting.” 

Another mask supporter, chiropractor Jason Vollmecke, listed numerous supporting materials and offered the board rebuttals for specific reasons people might give against mask. 

One mask opposer, Katie Ross, an English learning language teacher in the district, proposed the option of clear shields instead of masks, which she said hinder students’ ability to learn language. (The district’s policy says exceptions may be considered for children with difficulty with speech or language.) 

Other arguments against masks included that they potentially stunted brain development, prohibited free flow of oxygen, harbor bacteria, don’t allow children to bite an attacker and they violate the U.S. Constitution and Nuremberg Codes and can be considered physical abuse.  

That last writer, Judith Yager, also asked the district to stop making the “poison” of COVID-19 vaccines available to students. 

Fears responded to one email writer that the board asked for written rather than spoken testimony to be able to hear from more people. 

“You will not be surprised that we have a significant number of people wanting to express their feelings about this important issue,” Fears wrote. “In an effort to hear as many people as possible, we asked that individuals email the board.” 

A school district spokesperson told The Examiner via email that ISD continues to monitor COVID-19 cases in the city and county and there is “no specific timetable” for any decisions or changes about the mask policy. 

At the Aug. 10 meeting, the Board of Education and administrators discussed the mask policy in closed session, instead of in open session before the public, as a legal issue, as is permitted by state law. According to the minutes of that meeting, Herl noted Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt had sued Kansas City because of its mask mandate, likely would do so against Jackson County (he did) and could challenge school safety plans with mask requirements. 

The recommendation to require masks, Herl told the board, was based on the desire to have in-person learning, and he knew some in the community wouldn’t be happy with the decision. A couple ISD school buildings are in Sugar Creek, which is subject to the county mask mandate, and at the time the Independence City Council had not yet voted on a city mask mandate, which ultimately was voted down.