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'We were better before': Masking debate creates rifts in Pleasant Valley schools
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Pleasant Valley

'We were better before': Masking debate creates rifts in Pleasant Valley schools

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A sloppy, big-drop rain ceased just before 5 p.m. Monday, but dark clouds still hung over most of Scott County, including the Pleasant Valley Schools administrative office building.

A school board meeting was slated to start in roughly an hour, and the issue of approving a federal mandate requiring masks for all students riding school buses was on the agenda.

Not long after the rain left, teacher Chelsea St. Claire locked her car and headed toward the front doors of the PV Schools administrative building. She carried a notebook and wore a mask but said the issue was not the reason she showed up 45 minutes before the meeting's start.

"I'm a zero on masking; I have no opinion one way or another," said St. Claire, who teaches special education in the district. "Through this entire thing I've had students who wear masks and students who don't wear masks, and I've just focused on doing my best and helping my students."

St. Claire pointed to what she called "a lot of discord."

"I'm here to show support for continuing the good work we've done in the past. I'm here to support the idea we can work together," St. Claire said. "We were better before, and I hope we can get back the great relationships we had between parents and teachers and the administration."

Pleasant Valley's divide over masks intensified back in May when the board voted to keep students in masks for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year. That decision was met with varying degrees of dissent and outrage from parents who wanted students to choose whether to mask.

A group called PV Breathe Freely formed as the masking issue rekindled before the start of the 2021-2022 school year. 

After the passage of a federal mandate requiring all students on school buses wear masks to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the Pleasant Valley School Board took no action. It tabled the issue during September's meeting and after hearing from parents about the issue tabled it again at Monday's meeting.

Not long after St. Claire found a seat in the school's meeting room, Jason and Amber Beitzel made their way up to the doors of the district's administrative building.

"I'm here for one reason — masking," John Beitzel said. "I'm concerned that our children are not required to wear masks during the school day, first of all. And masks on buses is a federal and state issue and it is clear we should be following those rules."

The Beitzels expressed frustration with the PV school board.

"Our county health department, the CDC, all of the experts, say everyone should mask indoors," John Beitzel said. "We have two children — one in elementary school and one in junior high. We have real concerns about what they are exposed to and what we don't know."

John Breitzel looked up at the clouds and shook his head.

"There is no robust testing. There is no more contract tracing. There's no real guidance on what we will be told if students get sick," he said. "I can't believe the educators and school board members are ignoring the guidance of health professionals. It's really disturbing to me."

The packed school board meeting started at 6 p.m. and individuals took turns trading opinions during the public comment portion of the proceedings. Some offered emotional stories. Others talked about statistics and risks. After they finished, each of the speakers drew applause from their supporters.

Peter Olsen stepped up to the podium and was met with applause before he spoke. 

"If we believe in diversity, if we believe in freedom, if we believe in liberty, now is the time for people to live their lives as they choose," Olsen told the school board members. "I don't care what website you go to, I don't care if it's the CDC, if it is some far-left, far-right ... this whole process has been politicized."

Olsen drew more applause after he finished. Outside the administrative building, he made it clear he thinks the CDC and "the media" are using COVID-19 and masking mandates "to take away our freedoms."

"If we can force everyone to wear masks, where does it stop?" Olsen said after he was asked if he believed wearing a mask offered some protection to the people around him. "I have the choice. I have freedom to decide what I will wear and what I won't. People can wear their masks. And if they are older or immunocompromised, they can stay home."

Olsen called himself a critical thinker and challenged "... anyone to find a study that shows masks work." 

Numerous studies conducted since the pandemic began have reached similar conclusions: Masks are effective against the spread of COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention cites at least 10 separate scientific studies that proved the efficacy of masks. 

The school board meeting lasted one hour and 45 minutes. The mask debate held during public comment lasted less than 18 minutes.

Nearly three hours before all the words, St. Claire offered a few about the divide in her school district.

"I think we have to civil and professional in the ways we approach this. It's OK if we have differences," St. Claire said. "People are so traumatized and stressed out with everything we've had to deal with.

"I really think we should remember that about each other. People are hurting."

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