Questions About Masking Policy After December 13 BoE Meeting

Mr. Robinson and members of the Board of Education:

I have attended each of the last two school board meetings, on November 8 and December 13. The statements by the board regarding masking were drastically different at these meetings, and I am sending this letter seeking clarification.

I am not going to spend much time in this letter rehashing the comments from the community at these last two meetings. In November, the comments were staunchly anti-mask, with multiple community members going as far as to suggest that the district should sever ties with the health department if it meant eliminating mask requirements.

During both of the last two board meetings, the board has expressed the value it places on having as many kids as possible physically present in school as much as possible. At the November meeting, when the plan to make masking optional in January was announced, Mr. Robinson made it clear that one factor informing that decision was the fact that COVID trends were heading in the right direction, and implementation of the policy change was dependent on those trends continuing to move in the right direction.

During the December meeting, there were a number of comments made in defense of the policy change that used a desire for a sense of normalcy as a justification. Mr. Beach went out of his way to reiterate that masking was ending (stopping just short of saying “no matter what”), so people need to use the time remaining to prepare.

After the November meeting, I reached out to all of you and thanked you for making data-driven decisions rather than bowing to public pressure. Mr. Robinson was the only person to acknowledge that I reached out. After the meeting last night, I have several questions I would like answered because it seems like my appreciation was misplaced. If the board is not the right place for me to seek these answers, please point me in the right direction.

  1. The resiliency data presented at the December board meeting seems to negate any discussion of serious adverse mental health effects of universal masking. While I understand that it seems rational that universal masking would have an effect on mental health, I am unable to find any scientific data that backs up or quantifies that idea.

    Knowing that, why the emphasis on a sense of normalcy? Having a sense of normalcy and actually returning to normalcy are two very different things. The Delta variant has not gone away. Since the November meeting when the policy change was announced, a new COVID variant has become fairly prominent, one which early data suggests may lead to more breakthrough infections. Our country is still in the midst of a pandemic. People are still dying. The situation is not normal, so why are we eliminating safety measures to pretend things are normal?

  2. Who made the decision to eliminate universal masking at school events after normal school hours before any child younger than 12 could have possibly been fully vaccinated? What was the basis for this decision?

  3. The board has cited access to vaccinations as a factor in eliminating universal masking, but are actual rates of vaccination considered? What are the current vaccination rates among FTIS students? According to data presented at the December meeting, which I have not independently verified, the percentage of 5 – 11 year old students with even a single dose of the vaccine is somewhere below 15%. Does the board consider the fact that vaccination is not just a personal decision, but it is a statistical fact that sending even vaccinated children wearing masks into a population where 85% of their peers are not fully vaccinated and are also not required to mask increases the chances of a COVID infection? Every bit of data I can find suggests that vaccination rates in our district are nowhere near the level needed to reach any degree of herd immunity. So, again, do actual rates of vaccination factor into the masking policy?

  4. Mr. Robinson stated last night that a significant part of being successful with optional masking will be partnering with the community and relying on the community to follow best practices, especially regarding keeping students home when they exhibit COVID symptoms.

    How does the board justify this sentiment when often a person is most contagious immediately before becoming symptomatic? Additionally, how does the board justify this sentiment when even the school board meetings demonstrate that most community members, including most members of the board, disregard best practice advice when it comes to COVID? I know this is true because I publicly called the board out on this practice months ago, and yet nothing has changed.

  5. How does the board justify making masking optional even for unvaccinated students? I have not seen any public health guidance suggesting that it is safe for unvaccinated individuals to be in indoor public settings without a mask. Yet the FTIS policy makes no distinction between vaccinated and unvaccinated students or staff when it comes to optional masking.

    I understand that there are hurdles to implementing a policy that would require unvaccinated students to mask. There are privacy concerns and logistical concerns because it would be impossible to expect faculty and staff to know which students are vaccinated. Knowing that, does it not make more sense to continue universal masking?

  6. Is there a threshold at which universal masking will be re-implemented? Last year, there was a significant surge in cases after Christmas. We are already seeing a predictable uptick in cases after Thanksgiving. Mr. Beach's comments at the December board meeting, which were supported by Mr. Robinson, make it sound like there is no threshold at which the district will re-implement universal masking unless a superseding agency requires it.

  7. Finally, the board stated last night that one reason universal masking is being eliminated is because the district has seen more transmission at home instead of in school. Does that data not point to the effectiveness of universal masking in school, and if so, why abandon that policy? When students leave school, which is likely the only circumstance where universal masking is required, they become more likely to contract COVID. How does it make any sense that the response to that knowledge is to remove masking in schools?

    Understanding that the board stated that more transmission occurs at home rather than at school, can somebody please explain how it makes sense to remove masking requirements for after school activities, when the doors are being opened to a wider audience coming from multiple communities across the tri-state and beyond, not just Fort Thomas?

  8. Even with availability of COVID vaccines for everyone over the age of 5, the CDC still unequivocally recommends universal masking in schools (including for visitors to schools, presumably including after hours visits). What superseding public health authority is the FTIS board using to guide its decisions? The CDC does not carve out exceptions for districts who believe their level of community transmission is low enough to justify an end to universal masking.

    Similarly, the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services unequivocally recommends universal masking for all persons 2 years of age or older in schools regardless of vaccination status. The guidance from Kentucky also states that “full implementation of all layers of protection is recommended when sustained incidence of COVID-19 in a community is substantial or high (orange or red).”

  9. What additional resources is the district going to provide to students who suffer an increased sense of anxiety due to being in an environment in which they feel unsafe? Many FTIS students do not understand the elimination of universal masking because it seems to go against so much public health guidance. The community members who have been pushing to eliminate universal masking have talked a lot about being concerned about the mental health impact of universal masking, but I have heard no discussion of supporting the mental health of students impacted by the elimination of universal masking.

  10. Understanding that the decision to eliminate universal masking is upsetting to a lot of community members, did the board discuss offering remote learning or implementing other safety measures to ease the fears of those community members who feel we are being asked to put our students into an unsafe environment?

    For some community members, this policy goes way beyond preference and has severe health implications for our families. There are many community members who have members of their household who cannot be vaccinated or who have significant risk factors even with vaccination. Eliminating universal masking in schools will increase these people's exposure to COVID, forcing some families in the community to decide whether or not their students can remain in FTIS schools.

  11. How involved was the district faculty and staff in the decision to eliminate universal masking? Faculty and staff are moving from a situation where they could enforce universal masking to being in a situation where they will be potentially exposed to dozens of unvaccinated and unmasked children every day. I do not have any close personal relationships with faculty members or staff, but I can imagine how I would feel about this elimination if I were in their shoes. I would hope that the faculty and staff were given ample opportunity to weigh in about this policy and I would appreciate some details about how that input was sought and processed.

I know that I have asked a lot of questions, but I would very much appreciate detailed answers. The board stated at the December meeting that a board meeting is not the appropriate time to ask questions like the ones included in this letter, so I am trying to respect that idea and seek information outside of a public meeting.

Thank you,
Toby Varland