MARICOPA — Despite recommendations from district administrators to implement mask mandates in school buses and buildings, the Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board did not have the votes to do either.

By the end of the lengthy discussions from both board members and members of the public, the board kept COVID procedures as they are currently with masks being optional, though highly recommended.

The COVID-19 Dashboard presented at the Aug. 25 meeting, updated weekly, showed a total of 50 active student cases and a total of seven staff cases.

The administration recommended complying with the federal mask mandate of all drivers and passengers wearing masks on public transportation, including school buses.

The board had a split decision with Torri Anderson and President Ben Owens voting yes and Vice President AnnaMarie Knorr and James Jordan voting no. With the board’s fifth member, Robert Downey, not present at the meeting, the motion did not pass.

“The difficult part I have with this is that all of us have been labeled as just going with the mainstream media,” Owens said. “We’ve been belittled last week and this week and I will tell you the emails that I receive where there was a threat or I was belittled were immediately deleted. I’m not gonna deal with that personally. If someone isn’t going to respect me and have the decency to write a respectful email to me, I’m not going to listen to it, I’m not going to read it and I’m simply deleting it.”

The administration recommended requiring all students, visitors and staff to wear masks inside schools when there’s a high level of COVID transmission measured and reported by the Pinal County Health Department. MUSD is currently considered at a high transmission level.

This recommendation came with an opt-out option where a one-page form would be made available at school offices and filled out to excuse a student from the mask mandate for a year until the parent decides otherwise.

Owens, after being the only one on the board to voice support for this measure, asked the other members if they would just like to move on, so they did without taking a vote.

Lastly, the administration recommended updating the mitigation protocol and following guidance from the Pinal County Health Department. The update included communicating to parents that if the department notified parents regarding direct COVID contact, that the district wanted them to adhere to quarantining.

For mitigating strategies for COVID, the board wanted to change the wording to make it more clear and specific that it would be Pinal County dealing with parents who chose not to quarantine rather than the district.

Anderson made a motion to postpone the mitigation strategy decision until the next meeting, with Knorr seconding the motion.

Almost everyone who spoke during the call to the public voiced their opinions against the mask mandate.

Lori Riley has three children attending schools in MUSD and she said the last 18 months have been the hardest for them.

During her three minutes, Riley challenged the existence of a pandemic and the school’s motives for dealing with COVID and wearing masks.

“Why do we even bother testing everyone for a virus with an over-99% chance of a full recovery?” Riley said. “I don’t know. My guess is it’s about the money. It’s certainly not about our health. If it was about our health, we would be told to exercise, eat well, take vitamins, get plenty of sunshine and fresh air. We would never recommend children cover their mouths with filthy masks, which reduce their oxygen levels.”

Keri Dudley spoke in favor of the mask mandate because it hit close to home. Her child was in direct contact with someone who had COVID this week and had to miss classes.

Dudley recommended having temperature checks on the buses.

“If you don’t pass that temperature check, just like when we have to go into the doctor’s office and anywhere else, I’m sorry, but you gotta go,” she said. “Take down the names of all the people who were there until you come back with a negative test result, you can’t come back to school because you’re putting other people at risk.”

She felt the right to wear or not wear a mask ends when people’s lives are in danger. She said people should wear masks in schools, but outside of school they had the choice.

Some audience members made comments when Ronnie Manns spoke about his opinion on masks. His own daughter has been in close proximity with students who had COVID.

He said laws mandating vaccination and documentation of vaccination were “created to protect the children and the public at large.” He felt disappointed that COVID wasn’t on the list in Arizona statutes.

“The Supreme Court has carved out a niche for parents who feel they don’t wanna to get those vaccinations, and veterans like myself have fought and some have died to support that freedom,” Manns said. If they choose not to get the vaccination, that choice should be respected and should be honored. They must also realize that with every choice there’s consequences, there’s results. They need to be willing to live with those results.”

Audience members made comments after Manns suggested if students weren’t vaccinated on the reports, then they should do online learning and those with the vaccine could do in-person learning.

“It’s not about you and me,” Manns said. “It’s about us versus the virus. That’s what the fight is about.”

The Maricopa Unified School District Governing Board did not vote to implement a mask mandate in school buildings and buses. Kimlye Stager takes you behind the scene of the heated meeting.

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Kimlye Stager covers Maricopa and the surrounding area for PinalCentral, including city, education, business, crime and more. She can be reached at kstager@pinalcentral.com.