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COVID disagreements front and center at TUSD special meeting

The Turlock Unified School District Board of Trustees approved a resolution to set social distance expectations for when students are attending board meetings in official capacity. The resolution passed with a 4-1 vote, with Trustee Kenneth Howenstein voting no and Jeffery Cortinas abstaining.

The meeting comes on the heels of last week's board meeting where the two student representatives were forced to leave because Cortinas and other adults refused to wear a mask in the meeting room. Cortinas claimed at the meeting that he put in a request for a medical exemption and was not formally denied. Assistant Superintendent Barney Gordon said he was not aware of that request and will follow up.

While Stanislaus County ended the indoor mask mandate earlier this month, masks are still required in school settings when students are present, according to state guidelines.

The resolution encourages student involvement at the board meetings while stating that all parties will follow the requirements of Cal/OSHA, the Public Health Officer and the California Department of Public Health. If board meetings don’t follow the mandates, the district would be fined around $13,000.

The district's COVID safety plan follows CDPH guidelines that require adults to wear masks indoors when children are present.

“Tonight we are here to reiterate that board meetings are considered school settings when students are present in official capacity or invitation,” said Gordon. “This is the result of confusion and difficulty over the last few meetings which has garnered concern from community members, staff and board members.”

During the public comment section there was a mix of support and opposition to the measure. The ones who supported the measure said they appreciated students being considered above all else.

“I was so disappointed that the students had to suffer because of recalcitrant adults and one school board member,” said Donna Endsley. “I was so shocked that adults would refuse to comply and put their own wants above the health, growth and wants of children.”

The ones who opposed the resolution felt everyone should have the choice whether to wear a mask.

“You’re starting to frustrate people who kept quiet all these years and we’re getting fed up with the policies,” said Nathanial Rhodes. “Give people their choice back and let the kids choose and the adults choose. If people want to wear a mask, I respect them, and if people don’t want to, you should respect them as well.”

The resolution was to set expectations for board meetings when students are present and currently there are no guidelines for how to respond when someone doesn’t follow the requirements.

“As the resolution passed with a majority vote of the board, our expectation is that all will respect the will of the board and follow suit, as board bylaws require. Should this not occur, the board may choose to alter the way in which board meetings are conducted,” said TUSD communications coordinator Marie Russell.

Gordon and others during public comment suggested that those wishing not to wear a mask can submit their comment beforehand or attend the meeting in the overflow room down the hall. This prompted Cortinas and members of the audience to claim that would be a form of segregation. Other members of the board disagreed with that characterization.

“To use the term segregation is very troubling for me. That’s not what it is, we are doing our best to keep the schools open,” said board member Mary Jackson. “I don’t want to make anything political, if you don’t want to wear a mask go into another room. We want to set an example for our students.”

Cortinas said he believes this resolution should not lead to community members being forced to leave the meeting and he also questioned whether the resolution was aimed at trying to get him off the board.

“Last thing we need to do is start kicking people in the community out that think a little bit differently,” he said. “People can deny it all they want, but I believe this was directed at me. We’re going to have to get past this because COVID is not going away. Students are going to be shunned away from activities for not complying with your orders.”

Board member Anthony Silva said Cortinas was a main culprit in creating divisions within the community.

“He (Cortinas) has been the one primarily responsible for dividing this district and placating a certain group instead of representing the entire district,” he said. “He seems to feed off of that particular aspect of that argument and I think that’s what added to a lot of these problems. If we work together and try to come up with solutions rather than trying to divide us, I think we'd be much better off.”

Jackson also criticized Cortinas, and brought up an incident where “you called us stupid.”

“We can disagree but you don’t call people names, that’s what bullies do,” she said. “It’s been very frustrating to be called names and we’ve had rocks thrown at us. I understand both sides, but you can’t sit there and claim you haven’t been a bully when you’ve called us stupid. You’ve taken our staff and our superintendent to task, and if you do it publicly, you need to publicly apologize.”

Cortinas defended his statement claiming that he called the entire board “the smartest group of dumb people” for not listening to the community. He apologized to Jackson for any personal offense she took.