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Testimony implores the school district to ignore COVID mask and vaccine mandates

Tempers flared, unmasked people waved signs and yelled, and the board chair had to call a recess to cool the crowd during the Monday night Jefferson County School District 509-J Board meeting.

Public comments on the state mask and COVID-19 vaccine mandates drew a crowd of more than 50 - most against the mandates that were handed down from the state. The state mandate requires school staff, students and volunteers to wear masks, and educators must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18.

The regular monthly board meeting was moved from the district office across the street to the Performing Arts Center to accommodate the crowd. Masks required notices were posted at the PAC, but the district did not enforce the mandate, and most visitors did not wear a face covering during the two-hour meeting.

According to 509-J Superintendent Jay Mathisen, the state has said that schools that fail to enforce the mask mandate will face up to $126,749 fine per violation for "willful negligence"; daily penalty of up to $2,600 for continued noncompliance; schools may also face additional daily fines; licensed educators could risk penalties up to and including the loss of professional license; and potential for criminal and civil liability.

After a few presentations, board members opened the Sept. 13 meeting for the hearing of citizens. Board Vice-Chair Kevin Richards said they would enforce the 3-minute time limit and only allow 509-J in-district residents to share comments or concerns.

"It's our policy not to respond to individual comments, so don't be offended if you don't hear a response after speaking," Richards reminded the audience. He asked that people be respectful, listen and be orderly.

An outcry erupted, and several people shouted that they had the right to be there and to speak, even if they did not live inside the school district.

509-J Board Chair Laurie Danzuka called a 5-minute recess, and the five board members left the stage. Inside the auditorium, a shouting match ensued as people demanded more time to speak and to allow other residents to speak.

After the crowd settled, Danzuka resumed the meeting, reminding the audience that board members are volunteers and elected officials, asking for no further outbursts.

One parent supported the mask and vaccine mandates, but the other dozen speakers were not in favor. Gabby Nambo, a 509-J employee, advocated for students, who she has seen struggling to breathe while wearing masks. Other parents spoke about the difficulties their children had wearing masks.

"All the teachers that I know, they love teaching, and I feel like the mandate wants to take that job away from them and doesn't give them choice," said Michelle Stensgar, who has grandchildren in the district. "Is this really justice for all - this mandate that's being mandated, enforcing people? Take your shot or lose their job?"

District employee Alisha Dubisar said she would gladly get the virus if it meant keeping her freedom. "Give me liberty, or give me death," she said.

"I know that you guys know that you're going to lose employees," Barbara Boedigheimer said.

Teresa Baggett told the board members that the mandates are wrong and reminded them that local businesses stood up to the mandates and "ridiculous rules."

Others mentioned their belief that the vaccine is unsafe, deadly and "barbaric."

District employee Misha Kubo said she would not comply to the vaccine mandate that she said is not a law. Teachers are going to leave, and then who's going to teach the kids, she asked. "I've enjoyed working for the schools these last six years, but like everyone else, I don't like being bullied and being told that I'm going to lose my job, so therefore, I will not comply."

Once the public comments period ended, most of the visitors filed out of the auditorium - some yelling at board members. While the board finished its agenda, some visitors continued to discuss the topics outside of the PAC.

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