Panhandle Public Health Department Director Kim Engel addresses the Alliance School Board members at their meeting Monday evening, asking them to cooperate with their investigations. She noted that Alliance has seen the highest number of students quarantined in the Panhandle since the school year began.

At their meeting on Monday evening, the Alliance School Board Members heard input from several citizens, as well as Panhandle Public Health District Director Kim Engel, providing input on how the school is addressing the COVID-19 cases at Alliance Public Schools. The board took no action at the meeting, but listed “discuss successes/shortfalls of reopening plan” on their agenda.

During the Public Comment portion of the meeting, Shannon Kinsella, on behalf of the Alliance Education Association, addressed the board first asking the board to consider making changes to their approved reopening plan to help limit the spread of the virus.

“Per your approved reopening plan, your top priority is the safety of students and staff,” said Kinsella. “Out of concern for keeping our school setting as close to normal as possible, and in the interest of our students being able to stay in school and continue to participate in activities, the members of the Alliance Education Association would like to ask that you consider the recommendations outlined in this letter from our affiliate.”

Kinsella provided the board members with the copies of the letter before yielding her time. Next Adam Bolek addressed the board members, advising his concern about students wearing masks.

“I want to send you all a link with some very good information on masks: the long-term health effects, the short-term health effects, also some of the mental aspects of having to wear a mask and taking away a student’s individuality by making them wear them,” said Bolek.

Bolek then advised members of the board to watch the film Schindler’s List, a historical film detailing the life of Oskar Schindler, who used his factory to shelter Jews during the Holocaust. He also rebuked PPHD for their following of guidelines for the coronavirus outbreak.

“There’s some very good information in that movie,” Bolek said. “PPHD is being run by a bunch of people who are following guidelines that are not proven, and they also have no healthcare background. They won’t even answer the question of what they have for training. They are going off of what they’re told, and what they’re told isn’t always right.

“This is for the good of our kids,” said Bolek. “It’s an airborne virus. The masks are useless, especially the ones that were sent to you by the state. I believe they say right on them that they are not medical masks. Anyone else look at the packages? This stuff is being crammed down our throats, and it’s not right. I’m pretty vocal about it.”

After Bolek yielded his time, Sherri Stoike spoke to the board, thanking them and staff members for taking care of the students. She passed on a message from her children to the board.

“‘No masks.’ That’s coming from a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old. They don’t want to wear them. I have friends with kids who have asthma, I have asthma. On behalf of those kids, I’m asking you for no masks. On behalf of the kids who struggle with who they are, and like Adam said, it takes away their individuality, I’m asking for no masks. I know you’re going to make the right decision for our kids,” said Stoike.

She thanked the board again, before yielding her time. Next, Shannon Garwood spoke to the board, describing her feelings concerning masks.

“I feel a lot differently than the last few people who spoke,” said Garwood. “I’m concerned about my health, and I am concerned every day I go to school about my health. We don’t know where this virus will end up, and we really don’t know what effect it will have. Will somebody die? Will they have diminished lung capacity? Will they have inflammation of the heart? And they’ll be with that forever.”

Garwood asked the board members to read the letter she sent them. She also made a comment on student individuality and wearing masks.

“Spend a little time at the high school,” Garwood said. “When you talk individuality, you’ve got to see some of those masks. Those students are showing their individuality with the masks, as are the teachers. A lot of the teachers that do wear masks are ones that pertain to whatever subject they teach. Please consider the health of the staff when making this decision.”

Jeff Schneider was the next person to address the board after Garwood yielded her time. He spoke about his daughter’s experience as one of the students who were quarantined at Alliance Public Schools.

“I think we can all agree that our goal is to keep kids in school,” said Schneider. “My eldest daughter was one who got quarantined for being in close contact. She was exposed on the 10th of September. It was not until the 17th of September that we received a phone call saying that she was exposed from being in quarantine. With the average incubation period being five days, I think it is asinine, excuse me, to ask her to quarantine for the remaining 14 days. I think it is hypocritical that teachers are deemed essential, which I approve of, and I agree with, but our kids are not deemed essential.”

Schneider also said he believes masks hinder education

“They muffle speech, they hide facial expressions,” said Schneider. “They decrease oxygen and increase carbon dioxide. They cause kids to continue to touch their face. As far as I’m concerned, they provide little to no protection.”

Schneider asked how many kids who were quarantined for being in close contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 caught the virus. Superintendent Dr. Troy Unzicker said he would have to look for a current number, though he noted 150 students were quarantined, with two or three students testing positive.

Schneider admonished PPHD and suggested removing them from the equation.

“I think that the answer to keep our kids in school is not to mandate a mask,” Schneider said. “It is to get Public Health out of our classrooms. I know they have well intentions.”

Schneider shared a quote from Ronald Reagan before yielding his time. Some members of the audience applauded his statement.

Just as the board was about to close the public comments portion of the meeting, Engel spoke up and asked to speak. Kollars allowed her to address the board.

Engel said the situation is unprecedented, and asked for cooperation from the school district as they move forward with the school year.

“I don’t think anybody would have chosen this, but we’re here in it,” said Engel. “So, as Public Health, we are obligated to follow the Governor’s Directed Health Measure. In it, it talks about school-aged children very distinctly. Really there’s two concerns I want to bring up to the board. One is our goal is to keep kids in school too, and if we look across the Panhandle, the most children removed from school is here at Alliance Public Schools. That concerns us.

“As we got the email last Friday about the school’s refusal to assist in any kind of investigation, no seating chart, no class rosters, no interviews with teachers, that really takes all of our tools away in order for us to perform our duty as public health,” said Engel. “I don’t know what to say to you. The goal here is not to block quarantine, it’s to block the virus. We know with working with other schools, and following the infographic that schools bigger than you are not having children taken out.”

Engel said she spoke to the Governor’s Office about Alliance Public Schools refusing to work with PPHD, noting they told her Alliance’s school district is alone in the state as far as refusing to cooperate with public health.

“We ask that you consider wearing masks to keep kids in school,” said Engel. “And we ask that you cooperate with Public Health. The other option is only going to be more children removed from school. We’re trying to follow the law that’s in the Directed Health Measure. The same law is stated in many other places.”

Engel said that the district’s reopening plan stated the district would work with PPHD, as well as the district’s communicable disease policy.

After a brief discussion about mask policies in place at other schools, Engel yielded her time. As of press time, there were two active cases in the school district, one at Alliance High School and another at Alliance Middle School. A total of 14 positive cases in the district have recovered. A total of 40 people in the district were listed as quarantined.

At Hemingford Public Schools, there has only been one case of COVID-19, which has recovered. A total of three people were in quarantine as of press time.

Box Butte County as a whole has seen an increase in the number of cases, with a total of 142 cases in the county since virus began being tracked. Of those cases, 31 were active, 110 were recovered and one resulted in death.

More from Monday’s school board meeting can be read in the Oct. 21 edition of the Alliance Times-Herald.

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