It’s time for Pocahontas County to adopt a requirement for masks in public schools as a matter of common sense and public health. All other counties in West Virginia have school mask mandates. At its next meeting, the Board of Education should drop its stubborn refusal to consider masks and do the right thing for students, school personnel and the community.
Despite what badly informed speakers at recent Board meetings vociferously claim, masks are effective at slowing the spread of the coronavirus which causes COVID-19. Masks do not cause disease or harm those who wear them. Only a few months ago, it was the Board’s policy for all students and staff to wear masks and socially distance in county schools. But by the time school started in August only one member of the Board was in favor of restoring a mask requirement in classrooms – despite school administrators’ requirement for students to wear masks on buses.
The results of such a misguided policy have been dramatic. The number of active COVID cases in the school system is significantly higher than it was last school year despite the fact that a significant portion of the adult population is vaccinated. As more teachers are absent due to disease or quarantine requirements, demand for substitute teachers is much high- er than normal. But many substitutes refuse to accept assignments because they feel that, without a mask requirement, the schools are unsafe workplaces. And, some parents who want a mask mandate (including some former teachers) are keeping their children at home for schooling – further eroding the base enrollment of students in county schools. The general staffing shortage in the schools means that, on some school days, teachers and substitutes are stretched so thin that they are not conducting meaningful lessons because they’re shuttling between teacherless classrooms to serve as glorified babysitters.
What makes the Board of Education act as if it is an island unto itself – casually disregarding the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus and efforts that every other county has taken to slow its spread? As a state, West Virginia is nearly the worst in its current response to the pandemic. Within West Virginia, Pocahontas County is the worst at safeguarding the health of students. That’s some distinc- tion. To change this awful situation, two other members of the School Board will have to join with Sam Gibson to form a majority of the five-member board. You can bet that the same bunch of hecklers will be attending the next meeting to intimidate members of the Board from taking action. The burden falls to responsible citizens of the county to show up and calmly voice their support for masks in county schools.