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Toby Varland speaks at the Ft. Thomas Independent Schools Board of Education meeting Monday

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How the mask debate is playing out at Fort Thomas schools

Written by Kenton Hornbeck, LINKnky Media reporter

Fort Thomas Independent Schools Superintendent Brian Robinson said he has never seen an issue divide a community like that of the debate over masks in schools.

But, he said, “what I can assure you is, if we get to a point where we have to make a decision to close schools, I, in good conscience, have to say that we did everything that people suggested.”

Robinson emphasized his desire for universal masking to remain temporary, isolated only to this current spike in COVID cases, driven largely by the highly transmissible omicron variant.

The universal masking debate is a politically polarizing topic nationally. Community members have felt emboldened to attend their local school board meetings in order to voice their support or concern over certain pandemic safety measures.

In their first meeting of 2022 earlier this week, the Fort Thomas Board of Education reached a decision to temporarily reinstate its universal masking requirement for the school district. The universal masking policy went into effect on Wednesday, Jan. 12. The board came to its conclusion after carefully reviewing the guidance from public health officials.

The decision on whether or not to implement a district-wide masking requirement has remained a challenging issue for local school boards across Northern Kentucky. Administrators, board members, parents, students, and teachers hold a diverse set of opinions regarding the effectiveness of universal masking policies. Many school districts in the area have experimented with different iterations of the policy with varying degrees of success.

School district administrators have the daunting yet delicate task of balancing their community’s desire for students and teachers to return to a pre-pandemic educational environment while considering the necessary recommendations from public health officials on measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and it’s related variants.

Temporarily reinstating its universal masking policy is just one prevention strategy taken by FTIS in a layered approach. In addition to universal masking, the school district will temporarily return to their 1st semester Healthy at School protocols which include 3-feet minimum social distancing, temperature screenings, and sanitizing. The decision was made in collaboration between school and district administrators, the Board of Education, and in consideration of other stakeholders.

During the meeting, after a deliberation period where board members discussed the efficacy of cloth masks, the board initiated the community forum portion where community members can informally address the board on a variety of topics.

Toby Varland, a parent, is an advocate for universal masking measures. He communicated his support for masking in schools while criticizing the board over its decision to make masking optional.

“I’ve asked you guys very specifically to respect public health experts because they have the expertise to consider all sides of this argument," Varland said. "Teachers deserve better than to be thrown into a petri-dish every day when they are under contract with their livelihoods on the line.” 

He went on to express his personal disappointment in the rationale behind making masking optional in December prior to the winter Omicron variant spike.

“Prioritizing a sense of normalcy in the midst of a very non-normal pandemic, doesn’t have the same weight as keeping kids healthy,” Varland said.

Carol Dixon, a parent and school district employee, passionately voiced her concern over reinstating the universal masking policy.

“We have data from the experts that say we are going to mandate something that we are showing does not work," Dixon said. "There is data, proven data, from the director of the CDC that says cloth masks do nothing."