This week’s Turlock Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting got off to a rocky start when the two student representatives, Kate Ogden and Bella Kern, were forced to leave the meeting after board member Jeffery Cortinas and others refused to wear a mask inside the meeting room.
Board President Lori Carlson twice announced to the room the state requirement for a mask to be mandated indoors when students are present. After Cortinas didn’t put one on after the second announcement, she asked Ogden and Kern to leave the room.
“The decision to excuse students from the meeting was made in accordance with CDPH’s universal masking policy designed to protect students’ health, safety and ability to remain in school,” said TUSD communication coordinator Marie Russell.
The mandate that required all individuals to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, was rescinded in Stanislaus County earlier this week, however, the state public health agency requires all who are not fully vaccinated to mask at all times in indoor public settings and businesses. This guidance also requires all, regardless of vaccination status, to mask on public transit and in transportation hubs, K‐12 schools and childcare, emergency shelters and cooling centers, healthcare, correctional facilities and detention centers, homeless shelters, long term care, and adult and senior care facilities.
Both student representatives agreed that they were disappointed in having to leave the meeting and they wished those who didn’t put on a mask, followed the mask guidelines.
“The board is the face of the school district and when a board member does not wear a mask which in turn inhibits my ability to represent my school, I think it sends the wrong message to protestors and enables others to also not wear a mask. I think the public comment section and diverse opinions is a great thing; it's part of why I love the meetings, but it should not come at the price of safety,” said Ogden.
“I was really disappointed in the community when I was asked to leave because they didn't put a mask on. It felt like another thing was getting taken away from me because of the virus. I look forward to reporting at board meetings and was saddened that I couldn't do that this week and I hope this does not continue in this way. I support efforts in practicing the freedom of speech but I just ask the community to think about who else they are affecting,” said Kern.
Cortinas pointed out that there were other individuals were not wearing masks and other students were still in the room, including a student who spoke during public comment.
“I really wished the students could have stayed but me wearing a mask would not have made a difference. I feel disappointed the district took this approach, and we had our last meeting with the representatives present and unmasked people in the audience including myself without incident. These students had a constitutional right to be there to represent their individual schools and the district may have violated that right,” said Cortinas.
Cortinas does not agree with the district forcing the students to leave the meeting and encourages discussion of mask mandates among the board.
“I hope in the end this was not an incident to force people to wear masks, if so, this district needs to self-evaluate itself and remember it exists for the kids, to support and educate them. If we need to talk about masks and enforcement of any current legislation the district should have brought that to the board for open and honest discussion,” he said.
TUSD said the student representatives were asked to leave when others weren’t because they were there in an official capacity and didn’t have parent or guardian supervision with them.
“The students who remained were under the care and supervision of a parent/guardian and were not there in an official capacity as a representative to the school board or inspiration speaker,” said Russell.
Ogden and Kern both said they welcome debate and free speech, but agreed that the mask mandate is aimed to address public safety and should be followed.
“Coming from a debate background, I always encourage public discourse and different ideas, but with things like this (mask mandate) that aim to promote public safety and health, I feel like it's destructive and selfish to not follow guidelines,” said Ogden. “The board meetings are a venue where students and community members can voice information/opinions and it is unfortunate my voice had to be silenced because certain individuals were trying to prove a point.”
“When I got the opportunity to be student board representative, I was thrilled not only for the position but that it was going to be in person. Coming from a year when everything was virtual it was exciting to see something go back to semi normal. I support everyone's right to practice free speech and be firm in what they believe in, but when it affects another person negatively, I think it's important for them to take a step back and look at the bigger picture,” said Kern.