After listening to mostly public opposition to mask mandates from more than a dozen speakers, Hastings Board of Education members voted 6-2 Sept. 13 in support of a conditional mask mandate that will take effect when there is a 12% illness rate over a three-day period at any of the district’s seven schools.

As the new policy goes into effect Wednesday, the Safe Return to Learn plan won’t affect any of the school buildings until they exceed the 12% threshold. As of Sept. 13, none of the buildings had reached that number.

All students, staff and visitors to HPS schools, preschool through 12th grade, have been placed under temporary mask mandates for indoor settings and aboard buses since the start of the academic year in August. Those mandates all were due for re-evaluation by Sept. 17.

The mandate for seventh through 12th grades was imposed Sept. 2 as numbers of COVID-19 cases and illness-related absentee rates at Hastings High School increased.

“We just want to keep our kids in in-person school for as long as we can for as many kids as we can,” Board President Jim Boeve said. “I think this is the best chance for us to move forward. Obviously, it’s a hot button. People are very opinionated, and there are so many studies and so much politics involved that it’s hard to keep it all straight.

“We understand that nobody wants to wear masks — but you know, we think it helped last year. I think this is the right thing to do given our circumstances.”

The vote came after board members split votes 4-4 on a motion by board member Chris Shade to recommend but not mandate mask usage. And while Boeve called the board’s vote a compromise made in the best interest of protecting children, he said it is ultimately a decision backed by unproven data over just how effective the masks are in combatting the spread of the novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19.

“The problem is it’s something you’re never going to know,” he said. “If you don’t wear masks you don’t know how much that contributed. If you do wear masks, you don’t have a measure for how many cases you save.

“You’re just trying to make the best judgment, and that’s what we hope the people who are on either extreme understand what we did.”

Superintendent Jeff Schneider said that while the board ultimately chose to pursue what it felt was the best avenue available, he welcomed the input received from the majority of residents who spoke out in opposition to the mask mandates. That the decision to implement the new policy was split indicated just how difficult a matter it was to decide, he said.

“It’s a tough issue,” he said. “Hopefully people view this somewhat as a compromise and we can move forward.”

Jessica Ablott, a Hastings Public Schools Foundation board member, led off the initial public comment portion of the meeting “on behalf of the 78 percent of parents who are against mask mandates in our schools.” Her presentation, which exceeded the three-minute limit set by the board, drew a thunderous round of applause from the dozens gathered in opposition to the mask mandate.

“We are here tonight in support of the 90% of education experts in our district who are also against this mask mandate,” she said. “We all came tonight to address you, our school board, who voted 7-2 against masks being mandated in our district at the beginning of the school year, yet here we are again.

“This decision is outside the jurisdiction of the schools and should be left to the parents. If a parent thinks a mask will help their child stay healthy in school, it is their right to send them in a mask. And likewise, if a parent believes sending their child with a mask all day is detrimental to their health, that is also their legal right.”

Hastings Middle School sixth-grader Esther Allen-Pickett was one of few who spoke in favor of mask mandates.

“I’m still not eligible to receive the COVID vaccine, and I’m scared,” she said. “Also, my mask does not prevent me from interacting with my friends. I love wearing my mask. It’s my choice.

“I love going to this school, and I want it to be a safe place for me and my peers. And I want to protect us from this scary disease. You are here to protect me and my peers, so I beg you to keep this mask mandate.”

Under the new policy, should any of the schools reach an absentee rate of 20% or more over a three-day period, a brief shutdown will be considered. Mask mandates automatically will go into force for 14 days at that point. Both the 12% and 20% mandates will be re-evaluated every 14 days, with the requirement waived whenever the percentage dips below the number required to enforce the mandate.

In other matters Monday, the board voted unanimously to approve the recommended 2021-22 budget, which includes an operating budget of $54.14 million. That is an increase over $45.8 million for 2020-21.

The difference is largely due to Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds the school has or will be receiving, including the latest round of $6.77 million.

In another 8-0 vote, the board approved a 2021-22 tax rate of $1.12 per $100 taxable valuation for the general fund, 20 cents per $100 for bond funds and 2.2 cents per $100 for the qualified capital purpose undertaking fund. So, the total levy rate to support Hastings Public Schools is $1.342. That rate remains unchanged.

Also by 8-0 vote, the board approved the ESSER III plan, which includes $6.77 million in funding for school improvements in technology, air quality, technology and tech support, windows, transportation and indirect costs.

By unanimous vote, the board approved Morton change order No. 7 in the amount of $2,700 for new projection screens.

Finally, by 8-0 vote, the board approved an annual facilities usage agreement with the Hastings Family YMCA that calls for HPS to pay the YMCA $15,000 for use of its swimming pool.