Soulsbyville Elementary School

A photo from Soulsbyville Elementary School's website of a message written on steps at the campus.

The Soulsbyville Elementary School District is now excluded from insurance coverage by the Tuolumne Joint Powers Authority against claims, costs, or litigation stemming from a resolution the district’s board approved last week to ignore California’s indoor masking and vaccine requirements for schools.

The 19-member board that oversees the JPA, which represents 21 school districts in four counties, voted 18-0 with one abstention at a special board meeting on Dec. 16 to drop the district from coverage of any costs associated with the resolution approved three days earlier.

Furthermore, the district’s membership in the JPA will be reevaluated and recommended for revocation if its board doesn’t rescind the resolution before it takes effect on Jan. 3, according to Norma Wallace, the authority’s executive director. 

The JPA shares offices with the Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools near Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora.

The Soulsbyville board had its own special meeting scheduled at 6 p.m. Wednesday to discuss “anticipated litigation” against the district behind closed doors, as its five members also face pushback from most of the school’s teachers.

A group of 26 of the school’s 30 teachers voted Dec. 15 in favor of sending a letter to the board asking it to reconsider its resolution because they are required by state law to enforce indoor masking, or risk discipline and legal action that could include losing their credentials.

“We love this community and just like this community we have a variety of opinions about masks and the mandates,” the letter from the teachers said. “However, we have been put in a situation where we are violating the law no matter which directive we follow.”

Russ Fulkerson, a sixth-grade teacher at the school, said in a phone interview on Wednesday that he and other teachers he’s spoken with are concerned about the board putting the district at financial risk by operating without insurance.

“They’re opening themselves up to all kinds of litigation if someone contracts COVID,” he said.

Cathy Parker, Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools, said last week that school districts are obligated to follow laws like mandatory masking. Those that don’t run the risk of losing coverage and membership in the Joint Powers Authority, which provides property, liability, and workers compensation insurance programs for schools in Tuolumne, Calaveras, Alpine, and Amador counties.

Parker also said all Tuolumne County school districts are required to adhere to assurances submitted by her office to the state earlier this year in order for them to receive federal elementary and secondary school emergency relief funding out of the more than $120 billion earmarked for schools from the American Rescue Plan Act that was signed into law in March.

A condition of taking the money was to agree to assurances that include following health and safety guidelines, Parker said. Soulsbyville Elementary is receiving $481,889.

Soulsbyville School District board members are elected and, like other elected officials, subject to pressure from their constituents. In this case, many parents at Soulsbyville Elementary are opposed to masking, quarantines, and vaccines. 

Parents who contacted The Union Democrat to voice support for their school board this week and last week declined the opportunity to be interviewed, did not respond to follow up requests for comment, or stated they did not want to be quoted for the record.

Last Monday at Soulsbyville El, board members Timothy Morton, James Evans, Dena Canaday, and Heather Spangler voted yes to approve their resolution against mandatory masking. Josh Milbourn, the board president, said in a phone interview last Friday he voted no.

“I voted against the resolution because it’s essentially telling our school administration to go against the state mandate for masking, which has the effect of law,” Milbourn said. “I don’t think we need to go against the law in order to have our voices heard as a community.”

Before voting on the resolution, the board surveyed parents on masking, vaccinations, quarantines, and mandates, and got 290 responses. School administrators surveyed classified staff, including bus drivers and cafeteria workers, receiving 23 responses, and certificated staff, the school’s teachers, and received 26 responses.

A 40-page summary of the survey results includes a page that states 83% of respondents infrequently to never mask their children in public and do not believe that masks should be required; 5% always mask in public, think it should be required and are not OK with it being optional; and 11% are in the middle somewhere.

Another page states 46% of the 26 teachers who responded to the survey wanted vaccines required for students and 54% wanted them required for staff. However, 42% of the teachers said they didn’t want vaccine requirements for either students or staff.

Meanwhile, a grandparent of two children at Soulsbyville Elementary who contacted The Union Democrat is concerned about masking and vaccine debates at the school, which she worries has led to bullying. 

Gervaise Randall, 77, of Twain Harte, said members of her family have also taught at the school, one for 30 years and another who presently teaches there.

“Some students at Soulsbyville are bullying against kids who support vaccination and masks,” she said Wednesday in a phone interview. “The school used to have a great reputation against bullying.”

Randall said there was no bullying when she was a part-time helper in a classroom at the school while her grandchildren were in kindergarten through second grade.

Teachers encouraged their classrooms to welcome new students, and kids were rewarded with certificates at school assemblies for kindness, thoughtfulness, and compassion, according to Randall.

“Those things were taught,” she said. “Not anymore. I believe some children are mimicking their parents, some of the kids are voicing what they hear their parents say against masking and vaccines, and so other kids are suffering. Some of the children who wear masks and support vaccinations are getting teased and bullied by other students.”

Randall added that she thinks some of the teachers supporting masks in the classroom and vaccinations are experiencing the same bullying from some students’ parents.

“It’s a sad situation,” she said.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.