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As omicron surges, SPS Board fails to pass mask mandate in special meeting

A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.
Photo illustration by Max Posner/NPR
A KN95 mask and a surgical mask.

Despite record numbers of staff and student absences caused by the COVID-19 omicron surge, Springfield Public School’s Board of Education decided not to reinstate face masks as a requirement for students.

The school board voted on a temporary masking mandate, but the motion failed in a 4-3 vote. It would have required masks inside SPS facilities until February 18. The special meeting was called after extreme staffing shortages led the district to close for several days before moving to virtual learning.

In a contentious debate stretching over two hours, board members argued over the efficacy of the proposed mandate. Maryam Mohammadkhani, who voted against the mandate, expressed frustration when other members of the board called the measure “temporary.”

“The word ‘temporary’ has lost its meaning," Mohammadkhani said. "Three semesters is not temporary.” 

Board member Charles Taylor voted for the masking rule. He said while the mandate wasn’t perfect, it would still be a tool to battle the virus in the community.

“I recognize that masking is not a silver bullet," Taylor pleaded. "It is not infallible. It is one additional layer of mitigation that has been recommended that we use.” 

The school board’s meeting comes at the same time local hospitals are breaking records for number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Health officials say the community may have reached its peak of omicron cases—but disease will remain prevalent for several more weeks, at least.

The meeting was also held despite the threat of a lawsuit from Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who has sued dozens of school districts for keeping their local masking rules in place. Several of those school officials have said they interpret state law differently than Schmitt.

Springfield Public Schools is the largest school district in the state of Missouri.