York Public School Superintendent Mitch Bartholomew wears his mask as a precaution against COVID-19. Some have been critical of the district’s mask requirement, but, Bartholomew said “It wasn’t taken lightly.”

It’s a coronavirus controversy raging inside and outside school walls: to wear a mask, or not?

With the Four Corners Health Department COVID-19 risk dial registering yellow (“moderate” risk), York Public Schools has adjusted the protocol and procedures for starting school accordingly. That means masks will be required – most of the time.

Mitch Bartholomew, Superintendent, York Public Schools, said he has noticed some misconceptions as to exactly how much the masks will actually be worn during the school day. “We understand we’re bringing a large number of kids together in a couple weeks, so as a YPS team we’re going to be very purposeful in social distancing, having as many static groups as possible and good hygiene,” Bartholomew said. “When we cannot consistently maintain social distancing, masks will be on.” A few examples of school scenarios requiring masks include larger classes where students cannot maintain being six feet apart, and crowded hallways between classes. “If we can’t consistently [social distance] there’s a chance that masks will be on a high percentage of the time,” Bartholomew said. Should masks be required for an extended amount of time, “mask breaks” will be taken. “Teachers will make sure there’s a safe environment to take a break,” Bartholomew said.

York Public Schools’ mask policy was molded based on conversations with similar schools contained in ESU6 service area, namely Seward, York, Waverly, Norris and Crete, who together gleaned information from medical institutions. “Mask discussion has been frequent and constant,” Bartholomew said. “As schools we recognize that there are varied opinions, and our focus has been collaborating with our local medical community and the different medical associations in Nebraska and the Midwest. We feel like the information they’re giving us is based on science and research.”

“We’re being very open for feedback,” Bartholomew said, referencing conversations he’s had with parents. “There has been some good discussion. Our job is to communicate the ‘why.’”

Bartholomew and other ESU6 schools have sought advice and science from medical institutions like Four Corners Health Department, Nebraska Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Lung Association. “There is some inaccurate information that has been expressed to us, so we have reached out to medical associations and asked them to look into some of the comments made,” Bartholomew said.

Not wearing a mask when required in any contact-traceable group setting containing at least one infected individual can have ramifications beyond health issues. For example, should one student or staff member in a classroom test positive for COVID-19 and the class has been implementing mask requirements, the chance that others in the class will have to take a 14-day at-home quarantine is significantly reduced. However, if masks are not worn appropriately, there is a strong possibility of other students in the classroom having to take the self-quarantine per local health department’s assessment. “We feel like if we don’t [utilize masks], we’re going to have very, very large numbers of kids miss school because Four Corners feels like they’ve had a high-risk exposure,” Bartholomew said.

Bartholomew said the two main factors behind the school’s policy: mitigating risk and keeping students in school.

The first quarter of YPS’s 2020-2021 school year is 41 days. Should a student or staff member require 14-day quarantine, that absence accounts for missing slightly over 34% of the quarter.

Misconceptions will continue to abound, but Bartholomew urges YPS patrons – and others in the community – to keep an open mind. “I think everyone needs to look at it in both ways; there’s a chance you’re protecting others. There’s also a chance that you’re protecting yourself.”

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