Masks remain optional at Gilbert Public School campuses for now but that could change as the highly contagious Delta variant runs rampant here and elsewhere in the world.

The GPS Governing Board last week discussed face covering and mitigation strategies already in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. No action on masks was to take place yet people packed the board room and six of the nine speakers voiced opposition to a mandate. 

“For the past two years the situation has been fluid,” Board President Charles Santa Cruz said after hearing from the public. “And we continue to monitor and adjust as we would in a classroom if we were teaching.

“Should things change drastically there may be a need for this board to revisit some things that might be contrary to what has been said or stated or intimated this evening. I don’t know that for sure but it certainly is a possibility given the fact that we have endured this thing for the better part of two years or more.”

According to Dr. Santa Cruz, the board received and read by the dozens 680 emails regarding masks, a majority of them against a mandate.

Emails and speeches inundated other school boards in the region that met last week – including some, like GPS that had no mandate. Chandler Unified and Mesa Public were among them.

Amber McAffee asked the board to keep masks optional and let parents decide.

“The reality is kids don’t need these interventions just by the nature of being a kid,” she said. “We don’t really know the long-term effects of COVID…and we also don’t know the long-term effects of masking.

“But we have seen short-term effects…which was suicide, depression, all sorts of mental health issues are just booming in children.”

McAffee urged the board to listen to the community.

“The people of Gilbert have spoken,” she said. “I would also encourage each of you, if you have not, drive by a school – elementary, junior high, high school. Check out what lunch looks like, walk the halls. No one’s wearing masks. The people have spoken. Masks aren’t the mitigation measure we were told they were especially on children.”

She claimed that more children die by drowning and by car accidents than from COVID.

“’Seriously people, stop buying masks they are not effective in preventing the general public from catching coronavirus,’” said Todd Seimer. “This was from the Surgeon General Jerome Adams.”

Adams, who served under former President Donald Trump, in February 2020 tweeted out his comment but later reversed his stance on masks.

Seimer warned the board that if it mandated masks, the district risked losing students and as a result, funding.

The three who spoke in favor of masks included 9-year-old Stella Lawless, who attended Greenfield Elementary.

“I don’t feel safe,” said Stella, who wore a mask, “Here’s the reason why. Nobody is wearing masks and I have already been sick twice this year. Remember there are a lot of people suffering from COVID right now. So please make a change so people like me can feel safer.”

Kelsey Wharton, mom to a 1-year-old and a first-grader and third-grader at Carol Rae Ranch Elementary, asked the board to do everything in its power to encourage face covering on campuses.

“This year alone our school already has had nearly as many positive cases of COVID as we did all of last year,” Wharton said. “My family is just finishing quarantine after my third grader was exposed to a classmate who tested positive. 

“We have been in school 13 days at that point, barely getting into our routine and I am really worried about what the rest of the school year looks like both in terms of my children getting sick and also just the disruption to learning.”

Case data last week put the GPS District in the red or “high community transmission,” according to the Maricopa County Department of Public Health.

 Superintendent Shane McCord and Jennefer Frost, Health Services director, reviewed the mitigation measures that have been in place and the quarantine protocols.

Measures included following a 3-foot social distancing when possible, daily cleaning and holding events outdoors if possible. Staff also is required to screen themselves daily for symptoms and contacts and social distancing are in effect for classroom and lunchroom seating.   

Masks, though optional, will be strongly encouraged and bullying of students over the use or non-use of face coverings will be addressed, McCord said, adding that the district also will be encouraging people to get vaccinated.

Also, the district will update its COVID dashboard daily Monday through Friday, according to McCord.

 “As far as mitigation, I think we’re on the right path,” board member Bill Parker said. “The last thing in the world that I want to see is us to have to go back to remote learning.

“We need kids in the classroom so the only thing I would ask is that we be flexible and we watch where we’re going and be willing to look at other solutions if we have to and hopefully we won’t.”

 Board member Jill Humpherys, the only one on the dais wearing a mask, said the use of face coverings should be a state, not a local school board decision.

She urged that those who can, to wear a mask to help reduce cases as the hospitals are getting full with people stricken with COVID.

 “We need to be careful to slow down the spread to help our health care workers get through this,” she said. “And we can look forward hopefully to a vaccination for our children probably in December or January but we still have several months to get through, especially for those elementary kids.

“We have children in our schools that are medically fragile, who have special needs or who have health conditions. I hope that we would be as thoughtful and kind about helping them get through this as well. I would encourage our community to come together to support our kids and if your child could wear a mask and you could mask to help us get through this, it would be so appreciated.”

 Board member Sheila Rogers Uggetti, who attended the meeting via phone, echoed Humpherys’ sentiments and asked McCord what he was seeing with the use of masks when he visited the campuses.

McCord said he had no specific number but he could address it anecdotally. 

 “At some schools, I would say on average about 20 percent of the students and staff (are) wearing masks and 80 percent (are) not,” he said.