Megan Christiansen racked up experience as an inner-city teacher in the midwest before becoming an elementary school principal in the sleepy East Idaho mountain town of Victor.
Years spent teaching in Omaha city schools was especially eye-opening, she told Idaho EdNews Monday, from working with struggling preteen moms to battling the profound impacts of student homelessness.
The challenges were often “heart-wrenching,” she said, but they helped instill in the educator from rural Northeast Nebraska an approach to addressing issues that’s carried over to her job as principal of Victor Elementary.
“I just try to identify the right thing to do and do it,” she said. Behind her desk, a sign reads: “You must never be fearful about what you are doing when it is right.”
It’s the approach she recalled taking last week after at least 60 Victor Elementary students and seven staff members had fallen ill or called in amid a renewed surge of confirmed cases of COVID-19, both locally and across the state. For Christiansen, the right thing to do seemed simple. She made masks mandatory for Victor Elementary students and staff and outlined the change in an impassioned letter to community members.
“Victor Elementary is my family, and I’m watching them crumble in front of me,” she wrote.
But like so many things related to COVID-19, mandating masks at a school of some 200 students age 9 and younger wasn’t so simple. Especially since in the Teton School District, which oversees Victor Elementary, masks are optional, following a 3-2 vote from trustees. The district held firm on the decision after the City of Victor implemented a mask mandate of its own — and pressured the district to comply.
And never mind that Christiansen was part of a district administrative team that agreed to make masks optional heading into the school year — or that masks remain a heated topic of debate both locally and across Idaho.
Still, the spike in illnesses and absences at Victor Elementary brought the issue to a boiling point last week, Christiansen recalled. A three-day school closure to slow the spread changed things for the principal, who watched parents struggle to make arrangements for their kids stuck at home and worried about the prospect of more closures moving forward.
Christiansen also heard the cries of her staff, many of whom wanted a mask mandate in the building. Victor Elementary kindergarten teacher Emily Bedell estimated support for masks among staff at about 95%.
Determined to combat the outbreak, Christiansen recalled a section of the district’s COVID-19 response plan that gave schools leeway to adjust mask requirements on their own. With that, she gained approval from the superintendent, members of the school board and the school’s staff, and made masks mandatory starting Monday.
“I gained support from every staff member before doing it,” she said, including those opposed to masks in general.
Other responses to the change were more mixed.
“She’s a hero,” one EdNews Facebook follower wrote in response to the decision.
“Masks don’t work,” another reader wrote hours later.
Christiansen acknowledged the struggles some students might face wearing masks. Reading a teacher’s facial expressions is especially important for the youngest learners, she said.
But students can take breaks, she added, pointing to mask-less students on the playground. Christiansen also views the change as a step in the right direction — one she believe will slow the spread of illnesses at the school.
Bedell agreed, referencing a mask mandate in the Teton district last year that accompanied just three confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Victor Elementary.
It’s too early to gauge the impact the change will have this year, Christiansen reiterated. But so far she has no regrets.
“It was the right thing to do,” she said.