The Omaha Public Schools Board of Education approved a resolution to drop the district-wide mask mandate at Thursday night’s board meeting, making it optional to wear masks in OPS buildings as of Friday.

Teachers, students, parents and OPS staff sat in the Teacher Administration Center building, 3215 Cuming St., on Thursday to hear the board’s decision on the resolution to lift the mask mandate, the meeting’s only action item.

In her opening remarks, District Superintendent Cheryl Logan shared a chart displaying the number of COVID-19 cases identified among district students and staff bi-weekly since Jan. 7. While there were almost 750 cases in the district reported on Jan. 14, data showed that one staff member and 13 students had reported testing positive for COVID-19 as of Feb. 22.

With the number of self-reported cases decreasing, and the wide availability of vaccinations, “this is the time for our district to consider making mask coverings optional,” Logan said.

Students, teachers and members of the public shared support and opposition to making masking optional in schools.

Charlie Yale, a sophomore at Central High School, told OPS Board members that as omicron wanes and potential new COVID variants emerge, “it’s crucial” to keep the mask mandate in place. He said he fears removing the mask mandate will send students back to remote learning, an experience that was “detrimental” for him and his peers.

“Do not throw away your umbrellas in a rainstorm just because you are not getting wet,” Yale said. 

Peggy Trost, the grandmother of a kindergartener at OPS, supports an optional mask mandate. She has felt “disillusioned” by the mask mandate, and told the OPS Board that the mask mandates have increased her granddaughter’s anxiety. 

“She probably more than likely will not be returning to OPS because of how long this has went on,” Trost said.

Libby Cruz, an OPS teacher, opposed the resolution to lift the mask mandate. She asked the board to think of OPS families living in extreme poverty, members of Omaha’s refugee community, and those who are immunocompromised.

“Though the vaccine is free, the healthcare that you need if you get severely ill is not, and is out of reach for many more people than most of us realize,” Cruz said. “I feel like this decision has probably already been made, but I urge you to think of those most vulnerable.”

The Board of Education voted to approve the resolution to remove the district-wide mask mandate, making mask-wearing optional in OPS schools.

OPS has had a mask requirement since the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. The resolution to remove the mask mandate follows the removal of Douglas County’s mask mandate, which Health Director Lindsay Huse lifted on Feb. 16. The health director first implemented the mask mandate on Jan. 11 as the omicron variant surged throughout the metro area.

The CDC is set to loosen guidelines on pandemic masking this Friday, according to AP.

The Board of Education approved district payments during Thursday’s meeting. Board member Nick Thielen pointed out the district’s $100,000 purchase of disposable face masks for district-wide use for the 2022-2023 school year.

The next Board of Education meeting is set for Thursday, March 7. Read live-tweet coverage from Thursday’s Board of Education meeting here.

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Bridget Fogarty is a Report for America Corps member reporting with The Reader and its billingual (Spanish/English) sister publication El Perico.

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