POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — Students and staff returned to school Thursday with an adjusted quarantine policy in place after a 4-1 vote by the Mason County Board of Education earlier this week.
Prior to the 2021-22 school year, the West Virginia Department of Education released a “School Recovery and Guidance” with information and guidance regarding masks, vaccines, quarantines and other coronavirus related things.
The quarantine guidance was adopted by Mason County Schools, Superintendent Keith Burdette said via email.
The quarantine guidelines said vaccinated students do not have to quarantine; a county with a universal mask policy only quarantine if not vaccinated and there is no mask worn within six feet of someone who tested positive, and counties without an universal mask mandate have two options to quarantine after exposure that were given in the guidelines.
Option one for quarantine is 10 days of quarantine and no symptoms, can return to school. Option two allows the quarantine period to end after seven days if the exposed person tests negative and still has no symptoms.
The guidelines have each option broken down and can be found on the Mason County Schools website under the COVID-19 dashboard.
The Board held a special meeting this past Tuesday, where several parents, teachers and community members came to speak for or against mandatory masks. A motion requiring all students and staff to wear masks while indoors passed 3-2 and started Sept. 7.
This week’s regular Board meeting started with a parent coming in to speak out against masks.
“I just want the freedom to not have my kids wear a mask,” said Crystal Bartrum, parent. “It is an inconvenience. I just think that it is our rights, our freedom, not mandated by the government, not mandated by the Board of Education. I’m going to fight for it every time.”
After Bartrum spoke, Burdette gave the superintendent’s report.
Burdette said there are 58 active COVID-19 cases in the county and 176 in quarantine, “at close of today based on most recent numbers.” He said previously the high was 98 active cases and 557 in quarantine. Numbers include both students and staff.
Burdette noted the change in quarantine guidance made by the state Sept. 3, stating that contact tracing was not needed when there is a mandated mask policy in place. Burdette noted this the only difficulty the county has had is during lunch.
“I applaud every principal, they are doing the absolute best they can,” Burdette said. “We’ve got kids that are eating in classrooms, scattered out as much as possible. They’ve opened up commons areas, auditoriums. I saw a class outside.”
Burdette said keeping kids spaced six feet all around at lunch is nearly impossible due to space constraints.
“We’ve acknowledged it, but I don’t know a way around it,” Burdette said.
Burdette also noted that there are now 53 of the 55 West Virginia Counties with some type of mask policy — Putnam and Pocahontas the only ones left with optional masks.
Board Member Jared Billings initiated the discussion on masks, saying he was speaking as a board member and a parent.
“It’s good to see the quarantine numbers down but I hate that we have to play the mask game to, unfortunately, get there,” Billings said. “176 still quarantined is way too many.”
Billings said that the lack of spacing during lunch defeats the entire purpose of wearing masks for the rest of the day.
“That kids have to stay in a classroom all day and then go to the cafeteria and possibly have to be quarantined anyway,” Billings said. “To me, it’s unexcusable.”
Billings asked Burdette about creative ideas to solve the issue, to which Burdette said he was open too all suggestions.
“We’ve asked the principals for some guidance and their ideas, and I think they’ve just exhausted themselves to the point of trying to figure out how to do this, because that’s a big requirement,” Burdette said.
Billings eventually proposed a motion, stating, “If you’re positive, of course, we’re going to follow the quarantine. If you’re exposed and you have no symptoms, you’re not going to quarantine. You’re not going to quarantine and that’s the motion I am going to make. Anyone that has symptoms and you’re exposed, yes, to quarantine.”
Board Member Rhonda Tennant, said she would not feel comfortable acting on the motion without speaking to the Health Department and county medical adviser.
“I know you’re saying that’s part of the problem, but I am no way a medical person, I’m not qualified to give [decision],” Tennant said.
Tennant shared her upsets over the children being tested via nasal swab when there are other ways.
Board Member Meagan Bonecutter spoke on the issue of masks and said it was her opinion that “we’re failing our children” and that they can go anywhere else without them.
“I can’t imagine sitting like this in a mask for eight hours and trying to concentrate on learning and not even be able to see my teacher’s face, except for her eyes,” Bonecutter said.
It was clarified during this time that due to a misunderstanding, preschool wore masks during naps on the first day, but that has been clarified and reconciled.
Bonecutter seconded Billings’ motion.
“I’ll just say this, the one thing we tried to do, was try to keep schools open,” said Dale Shobe, board president. “If we take the mask off, we’re not going to have that [zero quarantined], we’re going to have 500 quarantined in a week.”
Billings said it is time to get creative and to find a way around the kids being quarantined without masks everyday.
Billings also said during the meeting everything on the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website is recommended. He encouraged Tennant and everyone else to do their own reputable research and also try to reach out to see if they can get an answer from some of the medical professionals.
The motion was brought back up and repeated for Board Member Ashley Cossin, who was joining via phone.
“If you’re COVID positive, you will be quarantined. But if you’re exposed, but you do not have symptoms, you do not have to quarantine. It’s pretty much just what it is,” Shobe said.
“You’ve got to wear your mask and all that,” Billings said.
“But you’re not quarantined because of that,” Shobe said.
“There’s actually a county in Ohio that piloted that exact plan when they opened up schools this year,” Cossin said. “That’s not completely unheard of, we wouldn’t be the only one doing it that way.”
Tennant said she would still like to speak with medical professionals.
“Because I do like the idea,” Tennant said. “Again we could revisit this at our very next meeting, if our cases have increased we could again correct.”
The motion allows students and staff exposed to a someone positive with COVID to remain in school. Exposure would not require quarantine unless the exposed person is showing symptoms. The mask mandate remains.
The motion was made by Billings, seconded by Bonecutter and passed with a 4-1 vote. Tennant was the only member who voted against the motion.
To reiterate, the new quarantine policy will started Thursday, Sept. 16.
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Brittany Hively is a staff writer for Ohio Valley Publishing. Reach her at (740) 443-4303 ext 2555.