A divided Litchfield School Board rejected a plea from local physicians Monday to reinstate a mask requirement at the district’s schools.

Board member Greg Mathews offered a motion for the requirement after three doctors spoke about rising COVID-19 rates in the community and the stress the virus’ spread is putting on the local health-care system and providers.

“This is for real,” Dr. David Ross said of the COVID-19 spread and its effects. “This is not the flu. I have never seen people die like this in our hospital. It’s the real deal, and I just want to make sure people understand.”

Later, Ross added that he and other physicians at Meeker Memorial Hospital & Clinics, though in close contact with patients during last year’s COVID surge, had avoided getting COVID-19, something he attributed to mask wearing.

“I truly believe masks are effective in preventing the spread,” Ross said. “Masking does work, and it is worth it.”

Dr. Deb Peterson, chief medical officer at MMHC, and Dr. Cassandra Bulau, chief of staff at MMHC, also spoke during the meeting, urging the board to do what it could to stop the spread.

“We’re not here to ask for masks permanently, but if you would consider a few weeks ... get us through Thanksgiving or the holidays,” Peterson said. “I really think there wouldn’t be as much going around if we had the masks.”

As they did in August when the board voted to recommend but not require masks for the start of the school year, some school board members acknowledged they were wrestling with the decision, but in the end, the vote was 3-2 with one abstention against Mathews’ motion for a temporary mask requirement. Board members Alex Carlson, Michelle Falling and chairman Darrin Anderson opposed the motion, while Marcia Provencher joined Mathews in support. Board member Julie Pennertz abstained, saying she didn’t have enough information about a plan to handle the mandate and the inevitable backlash it would receive from parents opposed to such a mandate.

Superintendent Beckie Simenson, high school Principal Jason Michels and middle school Principal Chelsea Brown also spoke to parental opposition at various times during the meeting.

“We will have a number of parents who choose not to do this,” Michels said. “What educational opportunities are we going to provide to those kids who choose not to do this.”

Brown said that other area districts that have mask mandates offer an online learning option, something Litchfield Public Schools currently is not set up to do, although it was offered during last school year.

Michels also asked how the mandate would be applied, whether it would be just during the school day, or after school hours and including athletic events.

“I say this with all due respect to our medical community … we do have some very strong differences of opinions with how families are facing this,” Carlson said.

“We live it every day, Alex,” Peterson responded.

“Dr. Peterson, I have tremendous respect for what you’ve been going through,” Carlson continued. “Again, it’s all those different factors that we’re going to have to face academically.” If the mandate were implemented and many families pulled their children from schools in response, “we’re not set up to do online teaching. The academic piece is tremendously challenging. Like we said in August, it’s a rock and a hard place. We’re going to have people mad either way.”

Mathews agreed with Carlson, but regardless of community pressure, he was acting on what he thought was best for the community.

Provencher said she didn’t think the ask of a temporary mask requirement was too much if it could help slow the spread of the virus. “Let’s see what happens,” she said, turning to the doctors in audience and asking, “Isn’t that what you’re asking?”

“It’s asking people to do something for the common good,” Peterson replied.