Dozens of concerned parents and several students showed up to the Auburn City Council meeting Tuesday night to speak out against the Auburn Board of Education’s decision to require masks when fall classes start.
Auburn City Schools announced its policy requiring all individuals to wear masks indoors and on school buses on July 29. The policy then went into effect on Aug. 2 and will stay in place until Sept. 14, when data will be evaluated to consider continuing or ending the requirement.
The decision was based on guidance from local healthcare officials and the upward trend and trajectory of COVID-19 transmission in Auburn, Auburn City Schools said.
Before residents spoke during the Citizens’ Open Forum Tuesday night, Mayor Ron Anders explained that the City Council does not have the power to change the decision made by the school board, as the City Council’s only role regarding the board is to appoint its members.
“There’s nothing more precious in this community than our children, and we respect the fact that you’re concerned about your children,” Anders said. “We care what you have to say to us tonight, but I want to be clear and let you understand that the City Council has no means, no legal authority to review or to change the decision that was made by the school board last week.”
Twenty-two community members, including three ACS students, came forward to speak about the mask requirement in schools. Attendees were spread throughout the City Council Chamber, hallway and an overflow room, many holding signs protesting the decision. Some set up outside the building, holding their signs against the window.
Many expressed frustration at what they felt was the Board of Education’s lack of response to the concerns they expressed at the board’s specially called meeting last Thursday.
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“I think a lot of the frustration on the part of a lot of parents is the fact that they felt like the school board didn’t listen to them,” said Stephen Smith, a local pharmacist. “You’ve appointed [the school board members], so I think there’s some accountability expected from you guys in that regard.”
Several community members said that the school board overstepped its bounds by requiring masks, saying that wearing a mask is a decision that should be handled by children and their families. Several also said they would be in favor of a policy that recommends masks rather than requires them.
“To the school board appointed by this Council who thought they had the authority to do this, while their hearts were in the right place, trying to do what they thought was best — they crossed a line. They went too far,” said Jonathan Parish, an Auburn resident. “Manage the school system; manage its budget, its curriculum, its schedule. We will manage our health and that of our kids.”
Several questioned the effectiveness of masks and one man asked what data the Board of Education used to inform its decision. Others noted potential detrimental effects they felt masks can bring about, such as anxiety, stress or academic struggles.
Tracy Richard is a parent to two ACS students and a finance lecturer at Auburn University. Richard said both of her daughters have health issues that have led to them being negatively impacted by masks.
“It breaks my heart to see what has happened to them this year and since they were masked,” Richard said.
One resident encouraged parents to vaccinate their children for COVID-19 so masks are no longer necessary. Michael Halperin brought up that children are required to get a vaccine for other diseases like polio and diphtheria, which does not bother most parents.
“If we vaccinated kids for all other things that they need to enter school, why not do the same and get rid of these?” Halperin said, pointing to his mask. “Folks, get your kids vaccinated. Let’s get rid of the masks, and let’s protect all of us.”
Ward 4 Council member Brett Smith attended the recent school board meeting as a parent. Following the City Council meeting, Smith said seeing parents stand up for their children is an "awesome experience."
Smith also said he feels the Board of Education made the wrong decision.
“I’ve read a bunch of materials, and I really think the school board messed up here,” Smith said. “I don’t think they got the right decision. I think at the end of the day, we have to parent our kids, and I think it’s our responsibility to make healthcare decisions for our children. And we should look to experts and listen to experts on what they think. We should listen to what they advise, but the end of the day, the buck stops with the parent as it comes to healthcare decisions for our children.”
Ward 5 Council member Steven Dixon said he was pleased so many people turned out to voice their concerns and have their voices heard, and Ward 6 Council member Bob Parsons said he was glad community members got a chance to see how their local government functions.
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