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PLCS School Board meeting: Mask debate heats up, policy remains unchanged

PLCS School Board meeting: Mask debate heats up, policy remains unchanged

Following two months of withering criticism from a determined group of organized parents, a member of the Papillion La Vista Community School Board of Education finally growled back Aug. 9.

Since May 10, during the open “Public Comment on Items Not on the Agenda” section of the board’s meetings, a small number of speakers have assailed the district’s mask policy. Even when PLCS announced a move to “mask optional” on July 12, the criticism remained unabated.

Last Monday, Regina Foutch told the board she was the founder of the Facebook group “Papillion La Vista Community School Parents for Liberty” and that many of the group’s members were assembled in the gallery that night.

“We want answers. We want accountability,” Foutch said, asking the board and PLCS Superintendent Andrew Rikli to hold a Town Hall meeting.

The public seating area, which had been filled with 20 to 30 attendees in the early summer, had swelled to nearly 50. A Papillion police officer was also on hand for the first time in recent memory.

Foutch had targeted the Aug. 9 meeting as a night of action. She posted to her group on Aug. 8 that “We need big numbers! The school board needs to start answering to us! They continue to ignore questions and concerns. This needs to stop if we want to protect our children.”

Whether by coincidence of the back-to-school calendar or by organized social media design, school boards in the region and around the nation found angry anti-mask protestors filling rooms last week.

When last Monday’s agenda reached the section on school reopening, Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction Shureen Seery told the board that, despite rising COVID-19 cases, there would be no changes to the reopening plan. This included making masks optional for students and staff.

Elsewhere, Omaha and Grand Island public schools have temporarily reinstituted their mask mandates. Lincoln Public Schools newly revised plan will require masks for its youngest students, spawning promises of protests at area schools by opponents.

Nevertheless, when Board President Brian Lodes addressed the policy and his decision to keep his children masked, the audience groaned, hissed and was generally dismissive.

“Just because we have masks optional as of today, doesn’t mean we are saying, ‘No masks in our schools.’ It is optional,” Lodes began. “We are leaving it up to parental choice. I, as a parent of three kids, I have had the conversation with my kids. They realize they cannot be vaccinated. They are worried about their great grandmother even though she is vaccinated.”

At that point, Lodes became agitated with the audience’s incivility, and with a wild gesture, accidentally knocked over his microphone.

“Excuse me. I am speaking,” he said. “We have plenty of public comment coming up. This is my choice as a parent. If I choose, and I ask my kids if they want to wear a mask, it’s my choice. That is what you have asked us to do, and that’s what we have given you. I did not force them, I asked them if they wanted to do that, and they said they would. They said they have no problem wearing it.”

Following a stunned silence, the public was able to address the board on the reopening policy for 30 minutes, with each speaker given three minutes. As opposed to previous meetings, both pro- and anti-mask speakers were equally represented. But there was a new twist. For the first time, some mask opponents brought children to the speaker’s desk with them.

At the conclusion of public comments, nearly half the audience left.

In reviewing the “PLCS Parents for Liberty” Facebook page, it says the group started on April 29 as “Unmask Papillion La Vista Community Schools.” It changed to its current name on May 20, and lists nearly 400 members in a school district with 12,000 students.

When comparing a list of group members to the 18 different speakers who came before the board to denounce masks from May 10 to July 26, 11 speakers were group members, and eight of them had addressed the board multiple times.

A further search of the PLCS database found none of the 11 had addressed the board prior to May 10.

Despite the audience exodus, Rikli gave a statement in which he called for reconciliation.

“We may have difference of opinions, but clearly you are passionate and you care deeply about your kids and your families, and I can certainly respect that,” he said.

“Hear me say this very clearly. I believe in masks. I believe in science. I believe in vaccines. In fact, I believe it so much I put it in my own arm,” Rikli said later. “These vaccines, in my opinion, are nothing short of miraculous and I do trust them.

“For those that don’t support masks, that don’t support vaccines, or believe that parent rights override school authority, I hear your voice, also. And so does your board. We may have a difference of opinion from time to time, but I firmly believe that parent rights override those of the school district. We believe in the rights of parents to do what is best for their children.

“So my ask in closing is this: can we set aside our differences for a short while and give each other a bit of grace? There has been enough bitter disagreement. There has been enough fighting. This community needs to bind up its wounds and heal itself.”

In other board news:

— PLCS announced the winners of the 2021 Greatness Awards, given to:

Lori Kupfer of G. Stanley Hall for Classified Staff Member of the Year.

Miranda Bush of Papillion Middle School for Rookie of the Year.

Nicole Bennett of Trumble Park for Elementary Teacher of the Year.

Joe Rohacik of Papillion La Vista High School for Secondary Teacher of the Year.

— More than 200 Papillion-La Vista students were vaccinated during the previous weekend.

— The La Vista Community Center will host some student activities while the wood floors of La Vista Middle School are replaced due to water damage.

— Student enrollment numbers have reached pre-pandemic numbers of more than 11,800.

— 100 new teachers and 75 new paraprofessionals have joined PLCS for the school year.

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