In the end, Rene Abels had to be true to her convictions.
On Feb. 6, Abels' brother died of COVID-19.
A little more than a month later, at its March 15 meeting, the West Hancock Community Schools Board of Education accepted her requested resignation as a school board member.
In her March 2 resignation letter, Abels cited concerns about the direction the district was pursuing in regard to COVID-19, activities, and masking.
During reports that night, several West Hancock administrators noted the recent successes of holding more in-person activities such as concerts and contests. Effective March 22, district fifth grade students will be allowed to go room to room again for classes rather than being isolated to self-contained classrooms.
“There are some tremendous things going on in education at our schools,” Abels said. “This was such a difficult decision and I’m saddened. I’m not blaming the others. Nobody knew COVID was coming."
Abels said she began serving on the board in fall 2019 and COVID-19 concerns started surfacing in February and March 2020. She confirmed that her convictions regarding the pandemic, which did not align with the vast majority of her peers, was the reason she tendered her resignation.
“I wanted to follow the science and do what the experts were saying,” she said. “Other board members did not feel as strongly about it as I did, especially with the masking.”
She said she believes that the school requiring masking was not for the right reasons, alleging school officials did not want to contact trace or lose athletes for sporting events.
At the time, students did not have to quarantine for possible exposure if masks were worn. Abels explained that the mask was the saving grace so students would not miss practices, games, and events.
“In my mind that wasn’t right,” said Abels. “A nurse and doctor shared facts with the board and superintendent several times. Parents and staff communicated with me about this in enough numbers to show there is another side to this.”
Abels said that every time there was a board vote on the masks, she felt like she was on an island onto herself. She shared her family’s first-hand experience with her brother's COVID-19 death. She said she had to be true to her convictions, which predated her brother’s illness and death.
She said she had the health and well-being of students and staff in mind and wanted everyone to stay safe. Abels said she saw the writing on the wall after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds lessened mask requirements and Board members ceded decision-making authority on masking to West Hancock Superintendent Wayne Kronemann in November.
In January, it was determined that kindergarten and first grade students could unmask due to less area COVID-19 cases and loosened requirements. When all elementary school students and middle school students followed shortly thereafter, it prompted Abels' difficult decision to resign.
Kronemann said that no matter the organization, it is difficult to get all parties to agree on everything. He noted that many districts have five board members and West Hancock chose to have seven, which makes it even more difficult to gain consensus.
"In reality, they should not agree on everything, so that is a good thing," he said. "It means they actually discuss and consider things. From the beginning there was not necessarily agreement."
Kronemann said the district has faced COVID-19 policy and mask-wearing decisions over the past year. He noted that the school district started with no mask requirement and went to mask-wearing due to the number of students having to quarantine at the time. Kronemann said there was consideration of taking the risk of not requiring masks, noting that some districts in Iowa never did.
Kronemann said the district began its step-by-step process of allowing students to demask about five to six weeks ago. He said that students and staff can choose to do what is right for them, COVID-19 case numbers remain low, and there have not been recent COVID-19 cases.
Abels was the West Hancock educator of 22 years, who decided to run for the school board after retiring. She was the middle school library media staff person and a para educator.
She said she ran for the school board to represent the kids and staff and make the district’s educational programs even better. She noted that she enjoyed visiting every classroom in the middle school and high school in her first few months as a board member prior to the pandemic, but after “COVID hit so hard” there were never many opportunities to discuss other education issues.
As Abels steps away from the board, she lamented the fact that with just over two months left until summer break, the district has allowed the children to start unmasking and potentially spread the virus.
"The board is a great bunch of people," Abels said. "Their ideas are just very different than mine regarding COVID.”
Rob Hillesland is community editor for the Summit-Tribune. He can be reached at 641-421-0534, or by email at email@example.com.