UPDATE: The Madison County Board of Education will hold a called meeting at 6 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 29 at the Professional Learning Center to discuss COVID-19 guidelines for county schools. Superintendent Michael Williams said he is not sure if the board will make a final decision on keeping current policies in place.
It was round two of COVID-19 talks with the county school board Tuesday night, but no votes were taken.
Local school officials called the meeting to hear from students, parents and teachers regarding the continuation of coronavirus safety guidelines set by the board this summer. Should they continue as they are?
There’s no consensus on the question. And the split in the crowd in the board meeting room between those wearing masks and not wearing any facial covering highlighted the difference of opinion.
Fifteen speakers were on the agenda to address the BOE Tuesday, primarily focusing on the requirement that masks be worn on school campuses when social distancing is not possible.
Madison County Middle School teacher and coach Eric Berryman, who said he and his wife both had COVID, asked the board to do away with the mask mandate. He said he often sees medical personnel not wearing masks in public. And he said the community has held events without outbreaks.
“There have been several Friday nights this school year where the home side of the football stadium has been shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the community,” he said. “We also hosted a county fair.”
He added that thousands of people will participate in trick or treating this weekend.
Berryman and others opposing a mask mandate said that a number of surrounding counties have a “mask optional” policy. And he said he has spoken with coaches and teachers in other counties who say that less than 10 percent of students are wearing masks and they’re not having outbreaks.
He said that unless people are 100-percent consistent in wearing a mask, they don’t have any grounds to argue.
“If you’re anywhere out in the community without a mask, even prior to tonight, you’ve already invalidated your own argument,” he said.
Madison County Middle School counselor Teddi Shriner spoke of her own health issues and the fact that she is at high risk for complications from COVID-19. She said she has been very proud of the school system and how it has looked out for those with health issues by having a mask requirement. She said she doesn’t want to see that changed.
“We have done an exceptional job; not once have I felt unsafe going to work,” she said. “I voted that we keep our mask policy in place but make some changes so that people can have a break.”
Madison County High School student Wyatt Herndon said he felt the one-way-only hall directions that were put in place at the start of school could be eliminated, but he said he didn’t want to see the mask requirement abandoned.
“We are a quarter of the way in and we haven’t had to shut down the school unexpectedly,” said Herndon. “I believe this is due to the regulations that have been in place. And dare I say, the mask requirements.”
Herndon said masks are a matter of being good to one another.
“I can expect people to be courteous to me and my health and it is my duty to be courteous of their health as well,” he said. “It’s a simple fundamental idea of being courteous to each other. It’s the golden rule. It’s our duty as Americans. And the Bible tells us to treat each other as we would treat ourselves.”
Madison County High School student Coby Hendricks wants to see the mask mandate eliminated.
“I used to love school, but now I hate it,” he said.
Hendricks said he has been “called out by teachers for not wearing a mask in empty hallways, even though I’m following the guidelines.”
“After having cancer, I turned into a germaphobe and I’ve always been a very clean person,” he said. “I have learned healthy habits to help build my immune system. After my treatments, my oncologist told me I did not have to wear a mask, because I was healthy and that would only weaken my immune system. When I wear masks, it brings back so many bad memories of me going through my chemo treatments.”
He said he is being bullied and shamed for not wearing his mask.
“I have been falsely accused of wanting to kill people because I choose not to wear it all the time,” said Hendricks. “I’m determined not to let the haters bring me down.”
MCHS parent Melody Hendricks said she is angry at not being heard and she said she is upset that students who don’t want to wear masks are being shamed.
“Teachers are shaming students for not wearing masks,” she said. “That’s a form of bullying.”
Corey Berryman, a parent of elementary school-aged children, said he is not asking for face masks to be eliminated, but he said people need a choice.
“We need teachers focused on teaching curriculum,” he said. “Not lecturing our students on how or why to wear masks.”
Berryman said social and emotional development can’t be ignored.
“There is no doubt that his is affecting the emotional and psychological well being of our children, especially elementary age,” he said.
Berryman said he will tell his children to feel free to take breaks from wearing a mask without worry of getting in trouble.
“Beginning tomorrow morning, Wednesday, Oct. 27, I will communicate to them that they have my permission to take necessary breaks needed throughout the day regardless of teacher or administrator permission,” he said.
Madison County High School teacher Susanna Arnold said she has battled cancer since 2015 and that the mask requirement is important to her. She said she has faced numerous surgeries, along with radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She said still gets chemo every three weeks.
“Over these years, this community has been there for me, providing messages of support, meals and even a financial offering to help me with medical expenses,” she said. “Now, I’m here to ask for support of a different kind. In order to ensure the safety of people like me, including the students and other staff in the district with underlying health conditions, I beg of you to continue to mandate masks in our schools. The beginning of my tenure here was marked by 9/11 and the loss of 2,977 lives. Since January of this year, COVID-19 has taken over 225,000 American lives. That is the equivalent of 9/11 every day for 75 straight days.”
She said “wearing a mask is the single most productive thing that we can perform to prevent the spread of this virus.”
MCHS student Peyton Miller said the mask mandate has slowed the spread of coronavirus at the school.
“Masks have been shown to greatly decrease the amount of droplets expelled from our mouths that could potentially affect others around us,” she said.
She said people assume children and teenagers will have a mild case. But she said one of her close friends contracted COVID-19 and suffered from severe effects, such as heart inflammation, which has led him to stop extracurricular activities.
“He didn’t infect anyone, because he wore his mask all the time,” she said. “Maybe if the people around him had worn a mask, maybe he wouldn’t have gotten it.”
MCHS student Jannah Detter said she wants to see people follow the science on masks and to look out for others, not just themselves.
“I’m not an expert, but I’m going to side with the doctors and scientists who have spent many years studying situations like this,” she said. “…People may think it is their right whether or not to wear a mask. However, not wearing masks hurts those around them…We have to be considerate of others, especially those more susceptible to the virus.”
MCHS student Audrie Sartain spoke against the mask mandate.
“I’d like to ask everyone here to stop highly valuing the opinions given by people,” she said. “Rather, take into high regard the plain facts.”
She said people who wear their masks diligently still get covid. She said the death rate for school-aged children ages 4 to 18 is far below one percent and that the chance of a child spreading the virus to another child is low. She said most people who die of covid have more than one pre-existing condition. She said zero students who have sat next to a student testing positive have gotten sick.
Parent Sandy Sartain said she wants to see Madison County students “have the same opportunity as surrounding schools” and have a choice on wearing a mask. She said her daughter has missed significant school time due to quarantining and that this has hurt her grades.
MCHS student Natalie Higdon said she is expressive and her teachers need to see her face to tell when she’s struggling with a lesson. She also said people need to consider the mental health effects of the mask mandate on others, such as depression and anxiety. Higdon also said some students are scared to speak up and be targeted by teachers for wanting to take their masks off.
“I’m not forcing my beliefs on anybody else like this mask mandate is forcing other people’s beliefs on people,” she said.
Madison County High School science teacher Bradley Shadrix is in favor of the mask mandate, but spoke against any form of bullying. He urged the school board to follow the science, “not the politicians, news anchors, co-workers or your neighbors.”
“We are in a global public health crisis, so ultimately I think you should be advised by public health experts,” he said, adding that the science shows that “masks are paramount to slowing down the spread of COVID-19.”
Shadrix urged people to think about the community.
“While I think having individual rights is an important part of a functioning democracy, I also think community rights are just as valuable,” he said. “Wearing a mask falls into this category…It takes a community effort to keep this virus from unsettling our community and our country more than it has.”
Madison County parent Jill Fortson said she sees both sides of the issue and wants people to be able to come together despite differences. She sent the paper the final paragraph of her speech that she didn’t have time to read.
“I stand with teaching our kids that the way to solve differences is through intentional conversations among willing participants with open minds,” she said. “I stand with ending the idea that battles are best fought online like a modern-day lynch mob.”
Masks weren’t the only issue considered Tuesday. A number of students and parents have expressed frustration with the required 14-day quarantine period for students exposed to the virus.
County school board chairman Robert Hooper said school systems have no leeway from the state on handling quarantines. He said schools must follow the 14-day mandate for students exposed the virus.
“Why do we still have to quarantine, especially those with no symptoms who had a mask on during close contact or possible exposure?” he asked. “We’ve been in communication with state health officials about our concerns regarding the quarantine. There has not been a reduction or an elimination of quarantine periods.”
Hooper said a school system in the state acted to eliminate quarantines.
“However, they did receive a very serious reprimand,” he said.
Hooper said the board will “continue to request local, parental control of this, but in the meantime, we will need to follow the 14-day quarantine mandate from the state.”