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Protesters challenge GIPS mask policy, ask for change

Published: Aug. 12, 2021 at 11:06 PM CDT|Updated: Aug. 13, 2021 at 9:20 AM CDT
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GRAND ISLAND, Neb. (KSNB) - Strong words Thursday night came from protesters at the Grand Island Public Schools board meeting, just days after the district announced it would be requiring both students and staff to wear masks to start the school year.

“I do not think that this school should be dictating whether we should have to send our children to school with masks,” said Laura Johnson, who is both a parent and teacher at GIPS.

“You are part of the problem,” one protester added while speaking to the board. “Instead of considering what’s best for each and every single student, you are ultimately choosing what is best for you.”

The top priority for those protesting, is to get GIPS to scrap their current mask policy, and it led to several tense moments in the board room. After 30 minutes of public forum, protesters were far from done.

“If you feel more confident and more safe sending your kids to school with a mask, I think that is great, and I am all for that, but I am very against forcing children to wear masks,” Johnson said.

With Johnson’s current teaching role within the district, she had the unique perspective of both a parent and a teacher during the 2020 school year, which required all students and staff to wear masks. She says the year was not only one of the worst in her teaching career due to her being pregnant and struggling to breathe at times with the mask on, but she said it was almost harder on the students.

“We weren’t doing high-fives and we weren’t doing the hugging and they had to be so far away from their peers, and they can’t see facial expressions, and I just think that is really rough on kids, and I just hate to see how that is going to affect their future and just their mental health all around,” Johnson said.

Inside the board room, those for and against the policy had 30 minutes to make their case, and it got personal.

“Since when did a school board member suddenly know more about my child than myself as their parent,” one speaker said.

It also got heated from those in support of the mask policy.

“People failed again and again to get the vaccine, and there’s consequences,” one man said. “Parents, there’s consequences to actions and there’s consequences to inaction.”

It also got straight to the point from the local health director.

“When this virus is spreading so quickly, we really have no choice but to say masks are the way to go,” CDHD Director Teresa Anderson said.

After the public forum ended, shouting and obscenities led the board to take an unplanned recess as police cleared the room, and that’s when the protest moved outside the Kneale Administration Building, as those against the mask policy pushed to have their voices heard.

The message was unified.

“I really hope that the board members hear the voices of everyone here and maybe rethink their decision and let it be a parents’ choice instead of a forced mandate,” Johnson said.

The school board took no action to change its mask policy Thursday night.

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