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  • Writer's pictureIsa Luzarraga

Among friends, the Millard mask debate has a different tone

Sarah Moore and Amber Lichti have lived in the same Millard cul-de-sac for seven years, separated by one house. They share the occasional glass of Prosecco and chat about parenting their school-aged children. Their daughters, Lily and Annabelle, are self-declared best friends, most of the time, and go to fourth grade at Bess Streeter Aldrich Elementary School, a three-minute drive from home.

They are similar in parenting style. And yet these two Millard moms disagree about whether their daughters should have to wear masks to attend fourth grade — even as they both worry about the Delta variant and the school year ahead.

Moore hopes the Millard school board will mandate masks at its Sept. 7 meeting.

Litchi is more hesitant. She doesn’t want her own children to mask, though she says they will comply without complaint if it’s mandated.

These differing opinions, deeply felt, aren’t the sort that will be the loudest in the room during Tuesday’s Millard board meeting. And the difference of opinion won’t stop the two neighbors from raising a glass together soon.

“We are both open to new ideas and self-reflect well,” Moore said. “... We can agree to disagree and not miss a beat.”

Millard Public Schools, like many suburban districts, has thus far remained mask-optional.

Omaha Public Schools, Lincoln Public Schools, Grand Island, and others have mandated masks for at least some students.

Now Millard’s mask-optional policy is being tested. In its first two weeks of class, Millard officials reported clusters of Covid in four elementary classrooms. Millard’s Montclair Elementary is temporarily requiring masks after a larger outbreak.

When her children went back to school, Moore and her husband started masking again, worried about the rising case rates.

“Once I saw that come out, I became instantly conflicted,” Moore said. “If we are the family that chooses to wear a mask and Lily's friends don't have to, what happens?”

Lichti feels differently. In part, that’s because both her daughter Annabelle and son, Finn, contracted COVID-19 mid-July. Because of their exposure, they will be unable to spread the virus for 90 days according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control.

“Right now, both of my kids have the antibodies,” Lichti, who works as a corporate attorney, said. “I don't want them to have to wear a mask. But at the same time, I am not anti-mask. If Millard tells me that my kids need to wear a mask, I'm not going to be the one complaining.”

Both women and their families are fully vaccinated. Moore worries that her younger children, who are unable to be vaccinated, are vulnerable under an optional policy.

“I know she [Lily] would probably be fine,” Moore said. “But, as parents at Aldrich, we have to be the ones in charge to make this decision that affects our whole community. I was hoping science would make the choice for me.”

The debate came to a head at a Millard school board meeting in early August — a meeting that ended with only one board member motioning to vote on a resolution requiring masks for students K-6.

More than 50 people spoke at the meeting. The vast majority opposed a mask mandate.

But that doesn’t capture the true feeling of Millard parents, says board member Stacey Jolley, who argues that she has received just as many emails supporting a mandate as condemning it. Other board members opposed a mask mandate, but remained open to changing course.

“I just don’t think the data is there to support it,” said board member Mike Pate. “If it gets approved, I want to come back and revisit this fairly quickly because I think it will change.”

The board will revisit the decision Sept. 7.

“I am just as frustrated by the optional mask mandate today as I was before,” Moore said. “My daughter will be wearing a mask to school every day or until we deem [it] safe. I also want Lily to understand this is a ‘we versus me’, and she too has a responsibility to keep her friends and others safe.”

Less than a week into the school year, a Montclair classroom was quarantined and moved temporarily to online learning. Parents received notification of a school-wide 28-day mask mandate on Aug. 20.

Superintendent Jim Sutfin announced new procedures the following week in an email to parents: If a case occurs in a classroom, masks are required in that classroom for two weeks. If two classrooms close because of COVID-19, the whole school will require masks for 28 days.

Despite the outbreaks, parents like Lichti remain leery of a wider mask mandate.

“While I understand the mask-optional frustration, an age and vaccination tied to masks seem more in line for me,” Lichti said.

The majority of American parents want their children’s schools to mask up. Nearly 7 in 10 support mandatory masking in schools, according to a recent Axios poll.

Local medical experts are urging schools to mask their younger students.

New Douglas County Health Director, Lindsay Huse, is strongly encouraging masking in schools.

Dr. Russell McCulloh, division chief of pediatric hospital medicine at Children’s Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center, has seen a rising number of adolescents being hospitalized due to Covid. He says the Delta variant is more contagious and appears to cause more symptomatic illness in children.

In July, the CDC reported a sharp increase in cases within this age group nationally.

Because of increased hospitalizations of children due to COVID, Children’s is strongly recommending that school districts enforce masking regulations and frequently test students exposed to COVID-19.

“Schools had a winning playbook last year with social distancing, enhanced hygiene, and masking,” McCulloh said. “They should use the same practices that worked so well last year again.”

Lichti and Moore both say they worry about other children beyond their own.

“When the kids got sick, I was trying to figure out what my protocols were for quarantining,” Lichti said. “Because to me, the socially responsible thing is to quarantine them the right amount of time. I don't want to get someone who's immunosuppressed sick. I see arguments on both sides.”

The Millard moms say their backgrounds shape their decisions. Lichti grew up in Shickley, a small town where the majority of adults remain unvaccinated, she said, including some of her own relatives.

“I find that irresponsible and just immoral,” Lichti said.“It appalls me that they don't get vaccinated. But who am I to judge anyone else's decision?”

Moore says her background in higher education working with school administrations and her sense of empathy has affected her pandemic-era viewpoints.

“I think it’s a reckless move [to not mask], just like the governor assuming people will do the right thing,” Moore said. “My frustrations are much bigger than Lily having to wear a mask with 20+ other students.”

Despite their differences, Moore and Lichti agree on the following: Their children need to remain in school, safe, learning and nurturing their friendships. Despite their frustration, neither parent will be screaming at the Sept. 7 board meeting.

“If MPS told me tonight that my kids had to wear masks starting tomorrow, I would not blink an eye or think twice about it,” Lichti said. “I would not complain or let my children complain. As long as they were going to school. That is the important aspect for me.”

Story originally published in Flatwater Free Press.


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