Mask debate

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 ramps up in the area and schools prepare to open for the fall, the Jefferson County Health Department has issued a new set of guidelines for schools, including a recommendation that masks be required in all K-12 schools. When this photo was taken during the Jefferson High School picture day earlier in the month, area school districts were still mulling the approach they would take for the fall. Pictured, high school employee Valerie Schmitt takes information as incoming sophomore Jemima Cervantes arrives to have her photo taken.

JEFFERSON — Following a packed house at the last Jefferson school board meeting and a trend of citizen-led mask debates around the state and beyond, Jefferson school officials are putting new public comment processes in place ahead of tonight’s board meeting.

Mask mandate decisions at various school districts across the country have spurred passionate debate which has sometimes escalated into contentious rhetoric or even violence.

Jefferson’s public discussion, while revealing a stark difference in opinion between those favoring a mask mandate in the schools and those against, has remained polite and respectful.

At the last board meeting, the Jefferson school board decided, in a close vote, to require masks for the start of the school year, but to review that requirement regularly and adjust it if local COVID-19 trends warranted.

Local school authorities hope that trend continues at tonight’s school board meeting, while putting in place procedures to assure public safety while making sure that everyone’s voice — pro or con — is heard.

Anticipating the potential for a larger-than-usual crowd size, school planners have moved tonight’s school board meeting from the Jefferson High School library to the school’s auditorium, to allow for social distancing and make sure everyone who wants to attend can be accommodated.

Charles Urness, the new Jefferson superintendent, sent an announcement to district families earlier this week communicating the process for public comment at tonight’s school board meeting.

Urness opened his communication by noting that the district’s first week of school had been a success and thanking students, parents, and staff members for their support.

“The district’s mission of ‘Empowering Futures Together’ is alive and well to start the school year,” he said.

Urness noted that the Jefferson County epidemiologist, Samroz Jakvani, will join the board virtually at tonight’s meeting to give an update on COVID-19 in the area and to answer any questions that board members and community members might have.

Anyone wishing to submit a question for him has been asked to provide their question in a Google Form link provided in the memo the district emailed out earlier this week.

Urness noted that any questions submitted via that form will be shared with Jakvani prior to the meeting and answered at the start of the meeting.

In accordance with the school board’s established practice, there will be a public comment period during this evening’s meeting.

Anyone attending the meeting in person will be required to abide by the district’s existing mask policy.

“If you are unable to comply with the masking/face covering requirement, but would like to make a citizen comment, we recommend emailing the school board and the superintendent prior to the meeting with the words ‘Public Comment’ in the subject line,” Urness noted.

He stated that attendees may also request a medical exemption or a reasonable accommodation using the Americans with Disabilities Act interactive process.

The relevant email addresses and the medical exemption form can both be found on the school district’s website at sdoj.org.

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