POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Students and staff will return to classrooms, and wearing mandatory face coverings, on Tuesday following a 3-2 vote by the Mason County Board of Education on Thursday night.
The wearing of face coverings will be indoors and on buses. The board also noted it will reevaluate on a regular basis. The board previously decided to recommend but not require masks in schools.
Board members Ashley Cossin, Jared Billings, Meagan Bonecutter, Rhonda Tennant, President Dale Shobe and Superintendent Keith Burdette were all present for the meeting, as were other members of the community.
The meeting started with the public getting the opportunity to speak. Those who wished to speak signed up upon entering the meeting.
A total of 14 people spoke with 10 of them being against masks, many referencing articles they said showed masks were “ineffective” and/or “unhealthy” among other arguments.
Parent, Michelle Litchfield was the first to give her thoughts.
“Masks do not work,” Litchfield said. “COVID is here. [It’s] staying here, there’s going to be many variants. Masking our children is not the answer.”
Some others who spoke against masks said:
“Please refocus on re-educating our children,” said Lewis Marcum, parent and teacher.
“We’re educating our kids here, are we teaching them to be afraid or are we teaching them to look at the facts and make a decision for themselves,” asked Jim Butler, former member of West Virginia House of Delegates and parent.
“We are borderline mask-hysteria for COVID-19,” said Brian Scott, a Mason County resident who teaches in Cabell County.
“I believe a parent should be trusted [with] the safety and well-being of their children,” said Jonathan Pinson, member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, 13th District.
“As a parent in the school district, the 2020-2021 school year was a nightmare,” said Johnnie Wamsley II, member of the West Virginia House of Delegates, 14th District. “My son’s last normal school year was second grade, he’s in the fourth now. He’s missing so much of his foundational education.”
“The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] recommends these things… it’s not a law that we have implemented,” said Amy Grady, West Virginia State Senator, Fourth District. “It is a recommendation that you guys take in and decide to follow that recommendation. You don’t have to follow it.”
A few people spoke in favor of masks or simply doing something to help protect the students. Some of those who spoke for masks were medical professionals.
Robert Tayengco, an internal medicine specialist at Pleasant Valley Hospital said he did not plan to talk, but others encouraged him to get up. He said it will take more than just vaccines or masks to fight the virus, it will take a combination of many things — vaccines, masks, social distancing etc.
Tayengco tried to explain the difference in the original COVID-19 variant and the Delta variant of the virus by saying the original COVID-19 variant is like a Volkswagon driving through a street of people, but Delta is like a tank with armor, guns and defenses running down the road of people.
Amber Nowlin, DNP, RN with Buckeye Hills, who is for masks, spoke about the importance of researching properly. Others, on both sides, reiterated the message throughout the night.
“To sit there and listen to someone say that masks are ineffective is overwhelmingly infuriating and frustrating,” said Amy Saxon, nurse. “Masks work. Obviously they work. If you’ve ever had a surgical procedure done, if you’ve ever stood bedside with a physician like Dr. Tayengco to do any kind of procedure, you wear the mask to protect who you’re with, two people wearing a mask would maximize that.”
One parent said she does not like and does not want the at-home-schooling either, but that something needed to be done, even if the two sides met in the middle and “caregivers” — teachers and staff — wore masks.
Throughout the meeting, the concern for the mental toll that the masks and/or quarantine are taking on the children was brought up.
After the community discussion Shobe said the meeting was called because two schools in the county are currently closed with a third on the verge of closing and something needed to be done to keep the schools open.
In August, the school board announced a new COVID dashboard where numbers will be updated on the website regularly. A listing of quarantines with each school was added this week.
As of Sept. 3, the county had 80 active COVID-19 cases and 557 individuals in quarantine throughout the school system.
“We tried to start like normal, but we have to do something,” Shobe said. “[The] main concern here is to keep students in school.”
Before the board members discussed possibilities, Burdette asked to clarify and make known some changes, saying “the COVID game [has] changed.”
Burdette thanked everyone for coming out and speaking civilly, he said he trusted the board and whatever decision made would be final.
A few of the changes this year include an ending of federal funding to relieve teachers and staff when in quarantine. During this school year, quarantined teachers and staff must use their paid-time-off (PTO).
Other changes include no extracurricular activities, including practices, for schools that are temporarily closed; a state mandate that the school week must be five days — this means days cannot be split like were done last year; work is no longer allowed to be sent home and considered as the student being “present,” they must be marked absent in that instance and when absence levels reach double baseline or there is not enough staff to safely operate the school, it can result in closing — Burdette said staff shortage was the reasoning behind Ashton Elementary and Hannan Jr./Sr. High School closing for the week.
Elementary students are allowed seven parent-excused notes for the year and secondary students are allowed five parent excuses.
Burdette also clarified the reason the meeting was announced “to discuss and take possible action on the operation of the 2021-22 school year,” was to allow the board to have the ability to discuss matters and take no action or decide to make a motion and take action.
During the discussion between board members, everyone agreed that the quarantine numbers are out of hand and that something needed to be done to keep the kids in schools.
“We have a whole bunch of employees and students to think about,” Shobe said.
Billings said he believed the pandemic situation has been made a mess by the government and that masks have divided everyone, including the state. He said during his research the numbers with and without masks were not hugely different and his issue with the quarantine rules is that “it’s all over the place.”
“We’re not as a school board or as a county or state, going to be able to do anything that completely eliminates this matter,” Cossin said. “There will be positive cases everyday. So, while I don’t want to say that I’m not concerned about those positive cases, I want to say my concern are the quarantines and that is something that is absolutely out of this board’s hands.”
Mason County follows guidelines put in place by the CDC and Health Department Cossin said.
“75 in the grand scheme of things is not a lot, 75 active cases make 456 quarantines, as of yesterday,” Cossing said. “Again due to the exposure and contract tracing guidelines and protocols that are in place.”[numbers on Sep 2].
Tennant said her granddaughter and friends were voluntarily wearing masks because they wanted to avoid quarantine or virtual school again.
“Right now, maybe it’s bigger than us,” Bonecutter said. “But maybe we need to start asking questions about the quarantine to the higher ups.”
Billings’ concern with a mask mandate is the efficiency if not worn properly and who would monitor how they are worn. He also cited concern with the closeness in the cafeteria.
“It’s like there’s no win,” Billings said.
Cossin said that something needed to be done, this is when Tennant said, “at least we can say we wore masks.”
Bonecutter initiated discussion on masks being mandated school-by-school or day-by-day with various factors, but overall it was agreed that would be too difficult and there is not enough manpower.
Cossin made a motion to mandate masks with regular reevaluations. The mandate was later amended by Cossin to say masks indoors and on the bus.
Cossin, Tennant and Shobe voted for and Billings and Bonecutter voted against, the motion.
In order to ensure enough masks were available to provide all students, it was decided masks will be required indoors and on buses starting Tuesday, Sept. 7.
School boards in surrounding counties [Jackson and Cabell] also voted to implement masks Thursday night. Jackson will start masks on Sept. 7 and Cabell started Friday, Sept. 3.
As of Sept. 3, 26 counties in West Virginia have mask mandates, five counties are going by the map color from Gov. Jim Justice, Hardy County is based on vaccination proof and Fayette County is based on the percent of students in quarantine; leaving the rest of the state as optional.
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Brittany Hively is a staff writer with Ohio Valley Publishing. Reach her at (740) 444-4303.