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School district responds to mask, vaccine issue
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School district responds to mask, vaccine issue

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ELKO – Unequal mask guidelines were criticized by school board members, the majority of whom pledged to parents that they would seek local control in the coming weeks.

Revised guidelines removing mask requirements for schoolchildren 9 and younger in May were discussed Tuesday by the Elko County School Board of Trustees. In addition, they publicly addressed concerns from the Parents of Elko County and other community members.

Board president Jim Cooney thanked parents and group members for giving their thoughts about mask mandates and vaccinations. Touching on vaccination clinics stationed near or on school property last month and public comments describing pressure from teachers to have students get the vaccine, he said he disagreed “with the idea of mandatory vaccinations” and believed masks and vaccines should be left up to the individual.

“I believe there is a misconception out there. I’ve asked for information if vaccinations were given without parental consent. I’m absolutely appalled by that,” Cooney said.

Elko County School District Board President Jim Cooney explains his thoughts on recent updates to mask requirements in elementary schools at the board meeting on June 8, 2021.

Regarding the updated mask policy where elementary schools required masks for fourth- and fifth-graders but not for younger children, he said “that doesn’t make sense whatsoever.”

Cooney pointed to the district’s application for variances to the state Department of Education allowing more students to return to classrooms in some of Elko County’s schools as an example of “persistence” to change the rules and applying “pressure” to Gov. Steve Sisolak’s office.

“The board’s persistence needs to be moving that ball forward with the governor’s office to make vaccinations and mask-wearing a personal decision. It’s not my decision for you, and hopefully, you’re not making decisions for me,” Cooney said to a round of applause from the crowd in attendance.

“I agree with you, and I stand the same as it should be a personal decision to wear a mask,” said Trustee Robert Leonhardt, adding that a plan needed to be determined before the fall.

“I just want to know what are we going to do to protect [the students] going forward,” he asked before he was interrupted by applause. “Mandates are coming down from the governor. It’s not our job to make students have vaccinations or have parents make their kids have vaccinations. Can we come up with something, a resolution, that we can protect our kids?”

Elko County School Board Trustee Robert Leonhardt gives his opinion on mask mandates during the board meeting on June 8, 2021.

Local control for parents, as well as the school district, was also supported by Trustee Teresa Dastrup.

“We live here. We know the people in our communities. I believe in local control. I believe in parents having a choice for their children,” Dastrup said.

Citing school district policy JBBC, Trustee Brian Zeiszler explained vaccines are mentioned as a condition of enrollment into school, but that students could apply for an exemption.

He referred to the policy that reads: “Unless excused because of religious belief or medical condition, a child may not be enrolled in a public school within Nevada unless the child has been immunized and has received the proper boosters for that immunization or is complying with the schedules established pursuant to NRS 439.550.”

Elko County School District Trustee Brian Zeiszler explains the district's policy on immunizations during the board meeting on June 8, 2021.

“It’s not within our purview to decide whether or not students are vaccinated within certain vaccines,” Zeiszler said, wondering how people thought the school board had endorsed vaccinations.

“I’m not sure where this is all coming from because we have never, as a board, other than the policies that are already here, we’ve never said, ‘No, put a vaccine slate on a school,’” he said. “In fact, I really leave most of the day-to-day stuff up to our administrators who are in the classrooms and in the schools that understand what is going on with those. So it is not my position to do the oversight of a principal to do what with their students and their staff.”

“It’s my job to look at policy and create policy that works within the parameters of what the state that gives us for laws and mandates, unfortunately,” Zeiszler continued.

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Raishelle Hoover of the Parents of Elko County addressed the vaccination point at the end of the meeting.

“I just wanted to reiterate our whole thing was against any future mandates that could possibly be put into place for the fall,” she said. “If there’s an uptick — because October comes around and all of a sudden there’s an uptick — and we now have vaccines and masks again.”

Zeiszler agreed with the other board members that local control over virus restrictions needs to come to the school district. He reiterated Cooney’s comment that the Parents of Elko County should “focus your attention on the state. That’s who needs to hear your voices because they’re the ones making policy that we have to live by.”

Suggestions offered by Trustee Candace Wines included organizing another workshop to write a new letter to Sisolak. It would address the issue regarding discrimination brought up by Parents of Elko County member Christy Armbruster.

“His mask mandate is in direct conflict with [the school district’s] statement” on discrimination,” Wines said as she was interrupted by applause. “I think we could come up with a respectful letter to the governor outlining some of the concerns we’ve heard from the community and the fact that the CDC guidelines are not scientific. They don’t make any sense … [we can] respectfully ask that we are given local control over masks.”

Elko County School Board Trustee Candace Wines suggests writing a letter to Gov. Steve Sisolak at the board meeting on June 8, 2021.

Addressing the vaccine, Wines added “it is an experimental vaccine, there’s no doubt it’s listed as a EUA [emergency use authorization]. I would think we could come up with a board policy that says any experimental, unauthorized vaccination would not be required in our county. I don’t know if that would be legal.”

“Just because we’re not hearing anything about mandatory vaccines, who knows. We don’t know that may not become an issue,” Wines continued.

Wines said the school district’s legal counsel found two opinions regarding consequences if the school district created its own mask policy. However, to reveal them publicly, the topic would have to be placed as an agenda item to have the board vote on waiving attorney-client privilege.

She added that school board members would be equally liable if a student became ill wearing a mask. “All I’m saying is there’s liability no matter what we do.”

Trustee Luc Gerber, a parent and a businessman, agreed with Wines, adding “I don’t want a school or government to tell me what to do with my children.” He said he wanted an action item to bring transparency to the district.

Elko County School Board Trustee Luc Gerber explains his position on masks in schools during the board meeting on June 8, 2021.

“We have to do it smart in a way that’s actually going to get results,” he continued. “I love seeing so many people here because it shows that you care about your children and you care about the district. It’s huge for me.”

Trustee Ira Wines was in attendance via telephone driving from Reno but his call was disconnected, and he was not available to discuss his position.

Cooney requested staff to schedule a workshop by the next board meeting to write a letter to Sisolak and the Department of Education targeting masks.

Elko County School District Superintendent Dr.Michele Robinson reports on the district's response to Covid regulations on June 8, 2021.

Regarding vaccines, “I think we’re pretty clear from the board’s perspective, anyway, that we’re not in favor of requiring all of the vaccinations,” he said.

At the end of the meeting, Armbruster, who spoke during the first public comment session, returned to thank the board for the workshop and the plan to write the letter.

“I appreciate you guys listening to our concerns and understanding the science and where we’re coming from, thank you,” she said.

Hoover also thanked the board for their plan of action and said the group would follow through with Cooney’s suggestion to take their concerns to Sisolak.

“It’s unfortunate [Sisolak’s] not been more forthcoming with you,” she said. “We will reach out to him, and have as many people as we can reach out to him.”

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Courts, K-12 schools & Spring Creek reporter

Staff writer for the Elko Daily Free Press

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