Tension and emotions were high at the August 10, standing-room only Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting. In addition to those who attended the meeting in person, 100 parents, school employees and community members attended the meeting through Zoom to participate in the conversation concerning a mask mandate for the 2021-2022 school year.
Several individuals in attendance at the meeting held picket signs to protest against the Reentry Plan in which superintendent Terrence Beam recommended the students be required to wear masks when they return to school August 18.
More than 20 parents, teachers, community members and medical professionals spoke to the board offering their opinions on the plan and whether or not they agreed with a mask requirement.
Although views were shared in support of the plan and against the plan, those who spoke against the plan were more aggressive in their remarks.
Those against making students wear masks during the new school year said they felt it should be up to the parents to decide what the students should and should not do.
“I don’t understand how you have the right to decide what is best for our children as far as wearing a mask or not,” Kristine Sharp said. “You were not there last year when the kids had to wear masks for eight plus hours a day. When they got home, they would be anxious, aggressive, depressed from lack of socialization with their friends and having breathing and health issues.
“We still live in America – the land of the free and home of the brave,” she continued. “My husband has fought for it. We have a right to decide for our children what is best. You do not.”
Several parents also spoke about how they understand it is a tough decision for the board to make during this trying time. They said that they feel students wearing masks would be more beneficial in keeping students safe until they are eligible for vaccinations, and that the community should work together to protect each other.
“Quite simply, I’m in favor of masks because my understanding of the masks is they only really work when we all do it,” Rachel Fanning said.
Fanning recalled the 1985 flood and said she remembers her family moving back to the county to support those who suffered from the flood damage.
“We came home to help,” she said. “We weren’t the only ones. There was a time when one of us was in danger, we looked out for all of us. I miss that time. I miss that time when we cared about each other enough to do things that may have been inconvenient and that may have been difficult, but we still did them for our neighbors because we knew it was in their best interest, and we knew they needed us.”
Parents and students alike shared their views with the board. On Zoom, Terrell McSweeney – who said she was pro masks – introduced her daughter, Madeline Burns, a third grader at Hillsboro Elementary School.
“I don’t love masks, but if it comes down to wearing a mask or being sick, I’m going to choose wearing a mask,” Burns said. “I know that you might not want to wear one and it might be uncomfortable, but it’s what can keep you safe. If you don’t wear a mask and you do get sick, it’s going to be very hard – almost impossible – to learn, rather than wearing a mask and being in school.”
John Paul Burks, speaking on behalf of his daughter, rising sophomore Hannah Burks, said he told Hannah to write down her thoughts and he would share them with the board. He explained that Hannah wanted to attend the meeting but was unable.
“As a student, I am constantly making decisions just as everyone here,” Burks read. “My parents, teachers and the people around me have guided me into knowing what’s wrong and what’s right in hopes that I choose the right choices. Today, we are here in the hopes of making the right choices to whether masks should be mandated or not. As a student at PCHS and on behalf of many other students that agree with me, masks should be a choice.”
Hannah went on to write that she has traveled the country this year for rodeo competitions and did not wear a mask at any of those events and said she will never wear a mask again – a choice she made for herself.
“I have traveled over most of the country without one, so it doesn’t make sense to put one on now that I am home,” Burks read. “For the students and staff that want masks, wear them. That’s your choice. It’s your body. But don’t take everyone else’s choice away by demanding them to wear one.”
Medical professionals also weighed in on the conversation – with individuals on both sides of the fence, as well.
Pocahontas Memorial Hospital pharmacy director Kari Cooper spoke on behalf of the hospital and said it is PMH’s stance that students and staff should be required to wear masks until the current wave of COVID-19 cases are resolved.
“We strongly support following the guidelines outlined by the CDC for a safe return to school,” she said. “While each of us individually has our own thoughts and feelings regarding some of these issues, it’s imperative to understand that collectively we as a hospital recommend using the guidance set forth by the CDC to reduce the transmission of COVID in our schools.”
Cooper said PMH is also a proponent of the vaccine and is offering to provide vaccination clinics to the schools for students 12 and older, as well as staff members.
“We’ll happily partner with our schools in any capacity to make it helpful to get vaccines to students and teachers and community members,” she said. “Knowing that our vaccine percentages in Pocahontas County are not where they need to be to combat the current coronavirus surge – and especially this new Delta variant – PMH recommends, along with the CDC, that in order for kids to return to in person learning, universal indoor masking by all students, staff, teachers and visitors – regardless of vaccination status – must be in place.”
PMH emergency physician Dr. Matthew Lee also spoke about the pros of wearing masks and said that while they do not guarantee safety from the virus, they give those wearing them a better chance of being safe.
“The reason why the mask maybe helps is because if a kid comes to school and has COVID and is wearing a mask – when they do cough – they’re going to probably cough some virus out, but instead of coughing a hundred thousand virus particles, it may only be a thousand virus particles and then whenever a kid gets coughed on, if he or she is wearing a mask, instead of getting a thousand, they may only get a hundred.
“The whole thing is the [number of particles] you get with the virus,” he concluded.
Lee admitted that he personally dislikes masks, but says that they do help provide a barrier from the virus.
“I hate masks,” he said. “I’m sure it’s impossible to teach with them. I know it’s hard to practice medicine wearing a mask and it’s hard to do any kind of job wearing them. I don’t like them at all, but until everyone is vaccinated, that’s going to be our best help. Again, the health department and the hospital are happy to come to the school and vaccinate kids at any time. We are happy to help prevent this.”
Dr. Jennifer Beverage, who is a PCHS alumna and parent of two students said she has served as a family physician and, during her military service, worked at the Pentagon providing medical services to the staff there.
Instead of directly discussing masks and the COVID-19 virus, Beverage shared statistics about other viruses and diseases that are commonly spread in schools by students and staff.
“We’ve talked about flu in young children” she said. “Complications from flu in children can range from simply having the flu but it can also be pneumonia, worsening problems including cardiac issues and in rare cases, death. Children die from flu every year. The current vaccination rate for pediatric patients is about twenty percent on a good year.
“The CDC estimated the actual number of 2017-18 flu season deaths in pediatric patients was about 600,” she continued. “Staggering numbers. Strep throat. Who hasn’t dealt with strep throat? Twenty to thirty percent of sore throats in children are caused from this.”
Beverage said strep throat can lead to lifelong medical issues, or could be pretty benign. She also mentioned hand, foot and mouth disease which can lead to viral meningitis.
School nurse Jenny Friel addressed the board, offering her opinion and stating that she feels safe enough to say parents should be allowed to decide whether or not their children should wear masks to school.
“I feel it should be a choice,” she said. “I have researched this. I’ve looked at different stories. I know people personally who have been so diligent. They have worn their mask. They have had the vaccination and they still got COVID.”
Friel said she feels strongly that vaccination is a more important focus than masks at this time and she believes it is important for people to be vaccinated.
“We need to build up immune systems,” she said. “I’ve said that all along. I’m not saying that COVID is not real. I’ll be the first to say I am for vaccination. Everyone knows I stand firmly with that, only because it’s doing something, because we could maybe stop the mutation of the virus with vaccination. It will slow it down.
“I’m not going to back down on that,” she continued. “But we live in America. We should have a choice. That’s what makes us Americans. I want what’s best for our students. I think we need to give everybody a choice. Just like everybody has a choice to get this vaccination. It has to be an individual choice. Parents are parents for a reason. They need to have that choice with their children. We have no right to tell them what to do.”
After hearing from all the individuals who signed up to speak, the board discussed the re-entry plan, with Beam sharing his recommendation to require students to wear masks while at school.
During the discussion, board member Sam Gibson was the only one who said he fully agreed with Beam’s recommendation to require masks. The other board members said they agreed with the majority of speakers who asked for it to be a choice.
“We are an institute of learning and one that should be in support of a scientifically-based body of knowledge,” Gibson said. “I just can’t fathom going any direction other than trying to protect these kids. I just cannot imagine us deciding not to do this.”
“I cannot imagine going against the people of Pocahontas County,” board member Morgan McComb interjected. “We’ve heard from teacher after teacher. We’ve had emails from a few teachers that said they support masking.”
“We’ve got teachers wanting it, too,” Gibson said of the mandate.
“We’ve got a few teachers, but the majority of our teachers who are on the frontlines are saying no masks,” McComb returned. “To me, to take away your democratic right says we don’t care about the people that elected us. I respect Mr. Beam. I respect where he’s at. I respect what he said. I believe the science, but I also believe in democracy. When you throw that out the window, you have nothing else.”
McComb added that if the community and teachers were in agreement with Beam, he would be, too.
“I would be just as passionate if these people were all in here saying wear a mask,” he said. “I would be just as passionate because we serve the people of Pocahontas County.”
The board voted – 4 to 1 – to give parents the choice as to whether their children wear masks in school, until the Pocahontas County Health Department directs the board to change the mandate.
The students will be required to wear masks on the bus and the school system will expand the virtual learning option to grades kindergarten through fifth grade.
Miscellaneous and personnel agenda items will be published in the August 26 edition of The Pocahontas Times.
The next board meeting is Tuesday, August 31, at 6 p.m. at the board of education conference room.