POINT PLEASANT — The Mason County Board of Education held a regular business meeting earlier this week, prompting a mask discussion and scheduling an additional meeting for October.
Board members Ashley Cossin, Jared Billings, Meagan Bonecutter, Rhonda Tennant and Dale Shobe were in attendance.
The meeting began with six attendees speaking against masks, including an eighth grade student, during the public comment and delegations period.
“Each one of you were placed in a position of authority by we the people,” said Alicia Rickard, parent of four Mason County students. “You were elected to represent them as a majority, to be a voice for the people, but sadly, I believe it’s become more driven by personal preference and opinion.”
Parent Jill Lilly spoke next, but Lilly said the only reason she was speaking was because her eighth grade son asked to speak himself.
“My son texted me today and asked if he could come and speak,” Lilly said. “Normally if I would speak, I would say that I was speaking on behalf of my kids, but since my son came up with a very good explanation of how he feels… I figured he was the best to give you his own feelings.”
Lilly said her son’s words were purely his own.
“Everything I’m about to say is meant respectfully as [an] honest opinion on how I feel about the rules that have been put in place,” said Hunter Lilly, eighth grader. “I felt that myself and other students have been dehumanized for not wearing a mask correctly, or not even wearing them at all. It’s funny how we went from one week being optional and fine not to wear and then the next week, it’s like being treated as if you yourself are making cases go up by thousands per day.”
Hunter asked why students were to mask all day but then leave school and head straight to a football game where he would sit closer to people than he would at school and with no mask.
Carrie Miller, dental hygienist, spoke to the board about her experience with masks in her profession and explained she would be sharing “facts” with them.
“Yes, I wear a mask. But what that mask does is keep me from spitting in your face,” Miller said. “Sorry to tell you, these masks are paper. After an hour they are no longer effective. I have seen multiple of you here already touch your mask with your hands, your mask is no longer effective. Just because something was designed for safety, if it is not used properly, it is dangerous.”
Miller said the only aspect of her job that she has changed is adding a face shield as it is the most protective.
Jason Simpkins, parent, spoke against masks.
“If I were honest, I do feel like at the last meeting it doesn’t really matter what we say or think,” Simpkins said. “You have your mind’s made up, though I could be wrong. That’s the way it seemed to me. This should really be a matter of choice since there’s conflicting information surrounding the topic.”
Parent Dana Barnitz was the last to speak during the public comment and delegations period.
“While I respect your feelings, that’s not what your role is,” Barnitz said. “Your role is to honor the law handed down and to ensure all of my rights are taken for the proverbial right. That my freedom of choice is not stripped due to the feelings of others and to grant many options for citizens so that their rights are kept solid, as well.”
After delegation, Superintendent Keith Burdette spoke and thanked everyone for being civil during the discussion. He then explained, in case it was unknown to anyone, board members were not meant to intervene during delegation; and how voting on agenda items are pulled to discuss and vote individually and the rest are voted as a whole.
Burdette said he did his homework on some of the public’s questions since the last meeting.
“I know that you felt that you weren’t heard, I just want to show you that I was listening,” Burdette said. “I tried to answer the questions as best I could.”
Burdette said he asked Dr. Wes Lieving about studies and research done on the effectiveness of masks, stating that Lieving gave him two studies to reference.
“One of them is a study out of Arizona, involving two counties,” Burdette said. “They did a study there, 999 schools and… Schools were 3.5 times more likely to have a COVID-19 outbreak if they did not have a mask requirement at the start of the year compared to schools that required universal masking on day one. That was the result of the study.”
The second study referenced pediatric COVID-19 cases from a sampling of 520 counties that showed schools with mask requirements had “roughly half as many cases as counties without school mask requirements.”
Burdette also said he spoke to the school system’s lawyers about religious exemptions, including a policy that was repeatedly mentioned by people during the public comment and delegation period. He said the lawyers said the policy essentially restated the First Amendment.
“They said the courts do not believe that the mask mandate was a violation of such based on a couple of well-known, a number of court decisions,” Burdette said.
Burdette mentioned a couple of cases regarding the decisions including the 2011 West Virginia case — Workman vs. Mingo County Board of Education and Resurrection School vs. Hertel, Sixth Circuit 2021; a case involving vaccinations, but Burdette said had some of the same issues.
Other questions answered during the meeting were regarding COVID funding to schools and if masks affected the funding.
Burdette said the county did receive funding from COVID grants and as to his knowledge, masks did not affect the funding. He also stated that 84% of Mason County’s funding went towards personnel and additional sources for students and the other 16% went towards social and emotional supports.
Board members had a lengthy discussion on altering the mask mandate.
“I don’t think any of us sitting up here are heartless people pushing our own selfish opinions on anybody,” Tennant said. “We’re up here and we have to take advice from all directions and this is a medical issue, we have a medical advisor available to us and he’s always been someone that we’ve always respected along with the health department. They have been very adamant on their stance with recommending the masks.”
“I think we’re all wanting the same goal, that’s what we’re wanting,” Shobe said. “I vote for precautions, we take three months with masks.”
“It’s obvious where I stand, I respect everyone’s opinion, don’t get me wrong,” Billings said. “Speaking on the active cases, some have stayed the same, some are lower and some are actually higher.”
Billings said he planned to later make a motion to repeal the mask mandate.
“It’s [recommendations] impossible to keep up with and there’s no right [way to go],” Cossin said. “I don’t think that there’s a majority, that I disagree [with], that the majority is on the opposite side of you all [against masks], I’ve said since the start, I think it’s 50/50 and that’s for the county.”
“Mr. Billings, I am on your same page,” Bonecutter said. “I would like to go cautiously in this because there’s two sides and I feel we need to meet in the middle for now.”
There was discussion on making a guideline for masks in terms of a percentage of active cases, possibly by school or county-wide. Bonecutter and Cossin wanted the decision to be thought out. Burdette asked whatever decision made, is one that can be in place for a few months.
“I do think you’re on the right track to give people hope,” Burdette said. “Just bringing it up every time and going through this turmoil is very difficult.”
The board meeting, which started at 6 p.m., still had personnel business to discuss when a new meeting was scheduled around 8:25 p.m. and the board went into executive session with no further action to be made.
The board voted to add an additional meeting for further mask policy discussion on Oct. 19 at 7 p.m.
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Brittany Hively is a staff writer with Ohio Valley Publshing. Follow her on Twitter at @britthively or reach her at (740) 444-4303 ext 2555.