POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — The Mason County Board of Education met for its regular business meeting Tuesday evening, discussing employee shortages, approving personnel and hearing comments from parents which included remarks regarding mandated facial coverings in schools.
Board Members Ashley Cossin, Jared Billings, Meagan Bonecutter, Rhonda Tennant and Dale Shobe, were in attendance along with Superintendent Keith Burdette.
With four different items on the agenda relating to the bus garage and/or bus drivers, Tennant brought up her concern.
“We have the issue of having enough mechanics,” Tennant said. “In the past, we discussed the problem with a shortage of bus drivers and pulling out mechanics to drive buses. We did some advertising from ads in the paper and the big school bus with the ad saying we needed them. I kept hearing that we had a lot of applications again and I don’t understand.”
Tennant said she was unsure how there was a driver shortage and was concerned with the mechanics needing to run routes as that puts those workloads behind.
Burdette said there were about eight new drivers in line to be hired, but that West Virginia has one of the “most stringent training programs in the nation.” Burdette said the issue was discussed at a recent meeting with county superintendents.
Burdette said there are some areas in West Virginia who have had to alternate routes, which he later explained meant some routes do not run on certain days and unless parents can take the children to school, they do not go on those days. He said the issue goes into teaching as well.
“In teaching, we talk about those positions we couldn’t fill, professional positions,” Burdette said. “The colleges have very few education students in the pipeline, very few. In fact, over half of the colleges, I believe, said [they] had less than 10 in a cohort come through at a time. When you think about that, it’s a very, very tough job and it’s almost a calling.”
Billings asked why those wanting to sub could not be pushed through since they are only paid on days worked.
“We can take anybody that applied, the state requires that they take a test and pass that test to be hired,” said Tonya Martin, director of human resources who was present online.
During the superintendent’s report, Burdette said there are currently 45 active COVID-19 cases in the county with 20 of those at Point Pleasant Jr./Sr. High School and 74 people in quarantine. He said contact tracing has continued to inform parents if their student is exposed, however with the quarantine policy change from the previous meeting, it is the parent’s choice to quarantine. There have been 77 people contacted for exposure and 26 of those chose to quarantine.
After the open-enrollment period for virtual school, there are now 179 full-time virtual school students. Burdette said with the difficulty of virtual secondary school, the county is working to keep in touch with students and assist them to help them succeed.
Burdette also reported a new website and phone app will be launched next week. He said he is excited for the new updates. He also said that the app will be completely different from the previous one.
“It’s a brand new, fresh website and app and I think that people will [find it to] benefit them,” Burdette said.
Earlier in the meeting three parents took the floor to provide public comment, which included remarks on mandated facial coverings in schools.
“I had a great public school experience right here in Mason County and sadly too many children are not having the same experience,” Jason Simpkins, a parent with four kids in Mason County Schools said.
Simpkins also said he is not anti-mask but he is “anti-mandate and pro-freedom.”
“This is not a temporary thing,” Simpkins said. “Two years of normal childhood have been stripped away all because it’s hard to find people with a backbone and belief to stand up for what’s right. I want to say that I represent the majority… and the majority is tired of the games, tired of the games being played to please the loud minority.”
Parent, Mark Oliver spoke out against masks and requested more information on how the board of education came to the decision to wear masks.
“What data are you using to mask young children,” Oliver asked. “What data is there because I know you cannot be using the CDC thing. You cannot, because I’ve got the CDC data in that chair right there that shows no significant difference on two studies that was given about masking young children.”
Parent and long-term substitute teacher, Sherry Fields, then spoke.
“The majority of our students hate the masks and they are miserable,” Fields said. “Now there are some before the mandate that would wear the masks. That was fine, that’s their choice. If they wanted to great, nothing was said then, that is up to them. We have so many students who are miserable and we have to change it. It’s just terrible.”
The three parents who spoke were met with applause from the audience after addressing the board.
Masks were not on the meeting agenda, so the meeting was adjourned after regular business discussions. Upon adjournment several who had gathered at the meeting continued to question board members regarding the policy on facial coverings in schools.
Shobe said the board has been in regular contact with the Mason County Health Department and County Health Officer, Dr. Wes Lieving.
“He’s recommended us do the masking and go back to regular quarantining, but we’re still sticking with what we did on the quarantining,” Shobe said. “Our data is we had over 100 kids positive and 500 quarantine and we had to shut our schools down or mask it up. So now we’re in school and the numbers are coming down to hopefully within a month we can throw them away.”
Shobe said the board does not quarantine students and staff, that is the Health Department’s job.
Several parents in attendance stated they would be back for further discussion.
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Brittany Hively is a staff writer for Ohio Valley Publishing. Follow her on Twitter @bhively1 or reach her at (740) 444-4303 ext 2555.