At its regular meeting on Tuesday evening, the Auburn City Schools Board of Education unanimously approved the extension of the school system's current Covid-19 mitigation measures, including the mask mandate indoors and on school buses.
At the meeting, Board members were provided with a summary of Covid-19 data since the start of the school year on Aug. 10 through Sept. 10, including a breakdown of the weekly positive cases, the number of students notified of possible exposure, a summary of the distribution of cases in elementary versus secondary schools and a breakdown of cases between students and staff. Some of the data weren't shared with the public during the meeting, and a public records request by the Villager was not fulfilled by print deadline.
Since the start of the school year on Aug. 10, ACS has recorded 340 positive cases of Covid-19, compared to only 253 recorded cases from August through December of 2020, according to Herring. During the first five weeks of this school year, 430 students have also been notified of possible exposure.
"Due to the efforts of mitigation, including the use of facial coverings, these students may continue attending school, with parents and guardians monitoring the symptoms of illness," said Herring, who also briefly spoke about masks at the Auburn Chamber of Commerce's Tuesday Talk meeting on Tuesday morning. "I would like to begin by saying I respect that our teachers and students remain masked all day, every day in school."
Herring also shared the number of students who were excluded from the notification protocol because they maintained three feet of social distancing and consistently wore face coverings. In addition to the 430 students who have been notified of possible exposure, 969 students have been excluded from the notification protocol.
"(That) results in 1,399 students attending school in the days after exposure because a combination of prevention strategies were used," said Herring, who then gave her recommendation to the Board. "With the provision of full-time in-person learning on campus an established priority, I recommend the continuation of the Auburn City Schools Return to Learning Plan, which includes masks or facial coverings being required for individuals at indoor activities in our city schools, and on school buses.
"Committed to the goal of keeping students in school, we must continue to practice measures of mitigation to provide a healthy learning environment. I'm appreciative of the extraordinary efforts our students, families, faculties and staff have made, and recognize that each person's contribution is significant."
Herring's recommendation and the vote by the Board came after many parents spoke about the issue during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Many parents in support of extending the mask mandate cited the importance of relying on the recommendations of experts, as it pertains to health care and the pandemic as well as in other aspects of everyday life.
"Some expertise relies on higher education and experience," said Susan Youngblood, an ACS parent who said she has spent seven years on a research compliance review board, although she is not a scientist. "I'm certainly going to a surgeon if I need my gallbladder out. And public health research, that also requires higher education and experience. For public health decisions, please continue the good work of listening to experts.
"Sure, I can consult sources and scientific research to check details. I can read and broadly understand proposals, including work that tackles mRNA. I can identify problem areas and more," added Youngblood about her work on the review board. "This board consists of a wide range of experts, and it always impresses me that not one of them hesitates to consult experts in different specialities, including risk management.
"Public health experts are continually assessing new data, a lot of it, systematically collected that might shift guidelines. That's just how science works. Please continue listening to experts in public health."
Other parents who spoke asked for the wearing of masks by students to be voluntary and blasted the Board for taking away their parental autonomy when it comes to health decisions for their children.
"We are very disappointed," said Andrea Tobin, an ACS parent who has spoken about the issue at previous BOE and City Council meetings. "How would you like it if I made this decision, or any decision, for one of your children? Our (school) ambassadors stood up here today — great honor. They should be proud. None of us can tell you who they are because we couldn't see their face, a bunch of little robots up here complying to something they should not be complying to. You should be ashamed of yourselves that you made our children stand up here and take that moment from them in which we cannot see their faces. It's heartbreaking what you are doing to our children."
The BOE will hold its next meeting at 6 p.m. on Oct. 12.
"School data and that of our community will be continuously monitored so that next-step decisions may be made when the circumstances allow," said Herring. "This recommendation is made without expiration. However, monthly updates will be provided ... ."