Litchfield Middle School science teacher Matt Dahl sat among his students during class in October. Masks were required attire for in-person instruction at Litchfield Public Schools last school year, but they won’t be required at the start of this year.

When they head back to school in a couple of weeks, Litchfield Public Schools students will do so without a requirement that they wear masks.

Litchfield School Board, on a 4-1 vote Aug. 9, approved a motion by member Alex Carlson that said the district would not require students or staff to wear masks at the start of the school year. The motion seemed to leave the door open to a return to mask-wearing, however, as it included that the board would review recommendations from the district’s COVID Response Team on a monthly basis.

The motion also included language that “recommended” masks, per guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and the state Department of Health.

“Our job is to educate, not mandate,” School Board Chairman Darrin Anderson said at one point in the discussion of the motion. “I truly feel Mom and Dad should be making that decision” of whether their children should wear a mask at school.

Approval of the motion came awkwardly, perhaps illustrating how difficult the decision was for some members of the board. Carlson’s first motion passed 4-1, with support from Anderson, Marcia Provencher and Michelle Falling, while Greg Mathews voted against.

Immediately after the vote, however, questions about the motion’s wording arose, and whether the “masks not required” edict would stay in place for the entire school year.

Falling then moved to rescind the motion, which passed unanimously. A brief discussion and an attempt by Anderson to clarify the motion’s scope followed.

“I think we all knew the intent of what we wanted to do,” Anderson said, adding that he wanted to emphasize the “no requirement” to start the school year, but that the board could, at any time it thought necessary, revisit the decision.

It seemed an important clarification, given comments Falling made immediately after Carlson’s first “no requirement” motion.

“I am concerned the decision we make tonight, is a decision that is a decision that is a permanent decision? Is this a decision that, if the COVID cases continue to rise, and we have concerns … what kind of flexibility do we have as a board to change our decision? If we make our decision now and cases go up …”

Provencher agreed with the difficulty of the situation, calling it a “tough decision,” and adding, “Whatever actions we take, they’ve got to be data driven. Dr. Deb (Peterson) gave us some data. To me, that’s what we should be listening to. That’s what I think I’ve always supported. And I support that we also have the kids always at the top of our list as to what’s good for them. I’m really torn on this one.”

Dr. Peterson, chief medical officer at Meeker Memorial Hospital and Clinics, was invited to the meeting by Superintendent Beckie Simenson and board Mathews. She spoke during the board’s public comment period at the beginning of the meeting, acknowledging the board’s challenging task but also emphasizing that COVID-19 numbers are rising in the area, due largely to the delta variant which has caused spikes throughout the country.

“I wish I had better news,” she said. “In the last two weeks, with the delta variant, COVID has kind of gone off the rails again.”

COVID positivity rate in Meeker County is “almost 7%,” she said, after being .9% positive just three weeks earlier.

“So it’s kind of an exponential curve upward,” Peterson added. “Along with that, people in the hospital has gone way up,” from 116 COVID patients in hospitals around the state in mid-July, to 327 as of Sunday, with 109 of those in intensive care units. Additionally, she said, the delta variant is hitting younger people,.

“I thought all weekend about what I even want to tell you,” she said. “I know you don’t want to mask the kids. I know people will pull out of the school district if they have to mask, and I know that’s a financial impact for the Litchfield School District. I also know that if we don’t, we’ll probably have a mess. So it’s tough.

“I don’t have the perfect answer,” Peterson added. “I’m just here to kind of give you the bad news of where things are at. And I wish I wasn’t. So it’s, it’s a mess.”

In offering his motion, Carlson focused on parental control. Referring to an informational packet provided to the board, Carlson said that there were 39 COVID-19 cases, six among children 5 to 18 years old, in Meeker County during the past 60 days.

“So, we need to give our families back a little bit of say in how they engage in the school year, not hand them a requirement,” Carlson said. “We’ve spent this summer talking about these social, emotional challenges our staff and our students have gone through. And I don’t want to rehash that. But I’m sure it’s been hard, and if we give them back a little bit of say … in times of uncertainty, giving people say helps how they engage.”

Mathews, who has steadfastly supported mask requirements, said he would continue to do so, because “I believe in preventative action.”

“I think we agree that we’re all in this for the right reasons, for what’s the good of the kids,” Mathews added. “The question, of course, becomes what is best for our kids.”