MERIDIAN, Idaho — The West Ada School District will proceed into the 2021-2022 school year with a mask requirement for students and staff and an option for parents to opt out.
The West Ada Board of Trustees voted 3-2 Tuesday night to move forward with a plan to require masks for a limited group of students and staff. Parents can also decide to have their children go without a mask.
Board members also approved a quarantine plan, allowing the person exposed in the classroom but wearing a mask or vaccinated, to continue school and activities with required symptom check, mask-wearing for 10 days, or show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.
The district trustees unanimously voted in June to remove the face mask requirement from the dress code, accepting a recommendation presented by now-Superintendent Derek Bub.
Board members reviewed Idaho Code outlining the district trustees' responsibility in regards to infectious diseases and viruses.
"How we've reacted to COVID isn't new. What we've had is policies in place to do some different things," said Board Chair Amy Johnson.
Crowd members responded loudly before members moved the discussion along. Families, students, and staff showed up to the meeting, based on an in-person poll taken by Johnson during the meeting. Several audience members showed they had no connection to the school district.
St. Luke's Dr. Jim Souza and St. Luke's Children's Dr. Kenny Bramwell virtually attended the meeting to give updates on the hospital systems capacity and COVID-19 outlook.
Following information from Souza and Bramwell, a 90-minute comment period opened, with students and families both in support and against mask requirements speaking.
'We are in trouble': St. Luke's doctors weigh in, give outlook
Souza and Bramwell recommended starting the school year with a face mask requirement for all staff and students. Souza said the district should commit to making it a short-term plan and move away from the requirement as soon as the current surge is under control.
Souza said if freedom and individual liberty trumps the district's goals, the "cards may fall another way."
Bramwell echoed the thought, apologizing to board members who have to make the decision that "could have been decided elsewhere."
"The truth is we are in trouble and heading for choppier waters," Souza said of St. Luke's hospital capacity. "I want to be clear what I'm not talking about. I'm not talking about labor and delivery beds. I'm not talking about pediatric beds, and I'm certainly not counting neonatal ICU beds."
Souza said, currently, around 40% of the St. Luke's adult admissions are patients with COVID-19 and more than 70% of ICU patients are sick with coronavirus. Souza said the average age of the patients is 54 and 95% of them are unvaccinated.
"Unless there is a change in the trajectory, unfortunately, all the signs are saying we aren't seeing a change coming immediately. This current situation will probably get worse," Souza said. "We will probably find ourselves moving to crisis standards of care soon."
Souza said the district can expect significantly more cases than last year, which will mean more children end up hospitalized.
"I don't know their names yet, I only know that we will know their names in the months ahead," Souza said. "It will probably be a small number, probably less than 20."
Bramwell said capacity at the children's hospital is minimizing as cases increase and measures that worked before do not work now. Bramwell reported there have, so far, been no COVID-19 pediatric deaths but the new variants are behaving differently than prior strains.
"I'd also like you to stop thinking about masks as some sort of infringement on your rights or limitation of your freedom," Bramwell said.
Bramwell said there are no credible studies that have shown there are any consequences of wearing masks and they have shown to be incredibly effective at preventing the spread of disease.
In response to a question of the impact masks have on students' mental health, Bramwell said the number of patients with severe anxiety and depression has "quadrupled" and the number of suicide attempts has also quadrupled. However, Bramwell said that is currently more blamed on isolation than wearing face masks.
Bramwell said anything the board can do to increase the compliance in mask wearing will help the situation. He said if only some are masked and someone gets COVID-19, everyone will have to be sent home.
Watch the full meeting here: