School Board states parents can exempt children from school facemask mandates

Parents of students in the San Juan School District can excuse their children from facemask mandates by signing a medical exemption.

By a 5-0 vote at the April 14 board meeting, the school board voted to allow the parental exemption for medical, mental health, or disability reasons.

The news was well received by a number of area parents, primarily in the Blanding area, who have long sought the ability to exempt their children from the mask mandate.  

However, Superintendent Ron Nielson adds that others may be upset by the vote.  

“We are not making everybody happy by any means,” said Nielson.  “There are still a lot of issues around masks, whatever you do.”

The district expressed a hope that the majority of students will continue to wear masks at the schools. The exemption does not apply to employees or to visitors to the schools.

The decision to allow the mask mandate exemptions comes at the same time as half of the school buildings in the sprawling district continue to be closed more than a full year after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

The contrast is remarkable, with the six schools in the river region of the district remaining closed for the past 13 months, while the six schools in the mountain region are planning field trips, participating in sports, and getting ready for prom.

Officials state that stringent testing, social distancing, and mask mandates in the mountain region schools have contributed to a relatively low incidence of COVID-19 in the schools and allowed the schools to remain open.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on communities in the river region schools, with some of the highest incidents of the virus and a high death toll.

The decision to allow the parental exemption came after extended discussion by the board and public comment input of more than a dozen local parents, teachers, and students.

Nielson said that his mandate has been to remain compliant with state requirements.

The superintendent outlined a number of conversations and communications that he received from the State of Utah and stated that the “strong opinion is that nowhere in state mandate is it intended that parental exemption is allowed.”

Board member Steve Black said that he interprets that the state health order allows parents to provide the medical exemption and added, “I’m inclined to trust parents.”

During the public comment period, one parent was upset that local doctors would not grant medical exemptions. The parent wished to make the determination for his children.

Other comments questioned the medical effectiveness of masks, the impact of required masks on children, and the right of the state to make these decisions.

State Representative Phil Lyman said, “Ultimately, I guarantee you that a mother has more jurisdiction over her child than the governor does.”

Several comments requested that the district finish the year with the masks and suggested that some parents may pull their children from school if the mask mandate is relaxed.

There was also frustration expressed when several commenters asked pointed questions, which were not answered by the board.  

The board states that they welcome the legally-mandated public comment period, but added that it is the time for public comment and not for a question and answer period.

In the end, the board voted to allow a parental right to formally exempt their children from the mandate for medical, mental health, or disability reasons.

Trevor Olsen, who directs federal counseling programs for the district, said many students in the schools are dealing with the mental health aspect of wearing masks.

Olsen added, “I assume that we will see more mental health exemptions than medical exemptions.”

“It has been a long, long time,” said board member Merri Shumway.  “We are weary of masks and parents are concerned about their children.”

In other matters at the April 14 board meeting, secondary schools in the district may move to a new schedule as soon as August.  A proposed schedule will implement longer class periods in an A/B daily schedule.

Nielson reports that the proposal has the support of approximately 80 percent of the secondary school teachers, with the minor issue being when to implement the changes.

While many details are still be determined, the schedule proposes A days on Monday and Wednesday and B days on Tuesday and Thursday. Each day would include four longer class periods rather than the current eight period day.

The Friday schedule, which features an early release, could include eight smaller classes or an additional A/B schedule.

School would start later (8:25 a.m.) under the proposed schedule and end at 3:15 p.m.

Lunch would be longer and the daily schedule would feature flex time and teacher collaboration.

Nielson said some report that 90 percent of high schools in the state use the A/B schedule.

The proposal will be addressed at future board meetings, but Nielson hopes to move ahead sooner rather than later.  

“I anticipate that the next step is an action plan to invoke and move forward beginning next fall,” said Nielson.

The board was approached with a request to move ahead with the construction of hogans at three of the district elementary schools.

Heritage Language Director Brenda Whitehorse and Federal Programs Director Trevor Olsen outlined the grassroots effort to build hogans to be used in the heritage language programs.

Construction costs will be covered through $30,000 in grants provided from Johnson O’Malley funds for hogans at Blanding, Bluff, and Montezuma Creek elementary schools.

There are already hogans on the campuses at Monument Valley High, Tse’Bii’Nidzisgai Elementary, and Whitehorse High schools.

Brenda Whitehorse explained that the hogans are an important part of the language heritage program.

The teachers can use the hogans as the setting for a variety of instruction, including the clan system, culture, history, government, language, Four Directional teachings, and Mother Earth, Father Sky.

The hogans can also host traditional peacemaking, family group conferencing, life value engagements, and community agency collaborative meetings.

The board asked about the location, maintenance cost, and plans for the hogans, with particular concern about the location of the hogan in Blanding.

About one-quarter of the students at Blanding Elementary participate in Heritage Language courses.

“The San Juan School District made a strong commitment to implement a heritage program and a majority of students in the district, and 47 percent of students in Blanding, see the world through a [Native American] lens,” said Nielson

Board member Lucille Cody added, “It is a great idea to have a heritage hogan at a school in the mountain region.”

The school board approved a “re-entry plan” if the six schools in the river region are allowed to open.  The plan would offer parents a choice if they want to send their students to school.

Nielson said, “There may be a mental process [for students] to go through when the schools reopen. We would love to have two weeks this year in order to start the process.”

Five of the six schools in the river region are already subject to school improvement plans due to low test scores.

Nielson reports that the Navajo Nation Council was expected to authorize the reopening of schools several weeks ago, but the motion was tabled without a vote.

Board member Nelson Yellowman said he was discouraged that the motion did not pass. “I was so optimistic,” said Yellowman.

“We would like to see students get back in school and fear they are falling further and further behind. It will take a while to catch up.”

Chris Monson reported on progress with the district Local Area Network, which will extend access to district technology for up to 800 isolated homes.

Monson outlined “growing pains as we light things up” and said that 170 homes are currently connected to the system.

The School District Business Office reports that the entire heating and cooling system will be replaced at Monticello High School. The project started with the gymnasium and locker rooms and will be completed by next fall.

The school district continues to seek solutions for the grass watering challenges at the Whitehorse High School football field.

“There is a lot of grass kill, and the ground is as hard as concrete,” said Nielson.

Pumping water from existing wells is not working, so the district is working with Elk Petroleum to find solutions. One option under consideration is to secure unused San Juan River water rights and use Elk Petroleum infrastructure and an unused district water tank to store the water.

The school board accepted a $325,947 bid from Tri-Hurst Construction for additional counseling offices and space at Albert R. Lyman Middle School

The board authorized negotiation with the education association for teacher contracts for the upcoming year. 

After accounting for insurance increases, and providing the standard steps and lane increases for continuing teachers, the remainder of the 5.9 percent increase in education funding will go to teacher salaries.

It is estimated that the increase will result in a four percent cost of living increase for classified and licensed employees.

In addition, the board authorized Superintendent Nielson to enter into negotiations with the chosen candidate for district Business Administrator. 

The position has been open since the December 2020 resignation of Kyle Hosler.

The board approved the School and Institutional Trust Land spending plans for all 12 schools.

San Juan Sweet Job Awards were presented to Chris Monson and Wesley Hunt for their work on distance education and the Local Area Network project.

The school board approved the distribution of a student survey that is mandated by state law.  Two other surveys will not be distributed.  Parents can peruse the survey and choose to exempt their children from participating.

“Our classrooms are seeing a lot of student surveys,” said Superintendent Nielson. “We need to protect them.”

Superintendent Ron Nielson recognized the success of the Sterling Scholar winners from the San Juan School District.  A total of 19 Seniors earned honors, including five winners and 14 runners up. 

Nielson specifically pointed out the success of Whitehorse High School students, including one winner and three runners-up.

Graduation ceremonies are planned at each school campus, including May 26 at 7 p.m. at Monticello High, May 27 at 5 p.m. at San Juan High, May 28 at 9:30 a.m. at Navajo Mountain High, May 28 at 1 p.m. at Monument Valley High, and May 29 at 9 a.m. at Whitehorse High.

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