Suzanne Stewart\r\nStaff Writer\r\n\u00a0\r\nTension 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.\r\n\r\nSeveral 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.\r\n\r\nMore 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.\r\n\r\nAlthough views were shared in support of the plan and against the plan, those who spoke against the plan were more aggressive in their remarks.\r\n\r\nThose 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cI don\u2019t understand how you have the right to decide what is best for our children as far as wearing a mask or not,\u201d Kristine Sharp said. \u201cYou 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cWe still live in America \u2013\u00a0the land of the free and home of the brave,\u201d she continued. \u201cMy husband has fought for it. We have a right to decide for our children what is best. You do not.\u201d\u00a0\r\n\r\nSeveral 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cQuite simply, I\u2019m in favor of masks because my understanding of the masks is they only really work when we all do it,\u201d Rachel Fanning said.\u00a0\u00a0\r\n\r\nFanning recalled the 1985 flood and said she remembers her family moving back to the county to support those who suffered from the flood damage.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cWe came home to help,\u201d she said. \u201cWe weren\u2019t 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.\u201d\u00a0\r\n\r\nParents and students alike shared their views with the board. On Zoom, Terrell McSweeney \u2013\u00a0who said she was pro masks \u2013\u00a0introduced her daughter, Madeline Burns, a third grader at Hillsboro Elementary School.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cI don\u2019t love masks, but if it comes down to wearing a mask or being sick, I\u2019m going to choose wearing a mask,\u201d Burns said. \u201cI know that you might not want to wear one and it might be uncomfortable, but it\u2019s what can keep you safe. If you don\u2019t wear a mask and you do get sick, it\u2019s going to be very hard \u2013 almost impossible \u2013 to learn, rather than wearing a mask and being in school.\u201d\u00a0\r\n\r\nJohn 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cAs a student, I am constantly making decisions just as everyone here,\u201d Burks read. \u201cMy parents, teachers and the people around me have guided me into knowing what\u2019s wrong and what\u2019s 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.\u201d\u00a0\r\n\r\nHannah 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 \u2013 a choice she made for herself.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cI have traveled over most of the country without one, so it doesn\u2019t make sense to put one on now that I am home,\u201d Burks read. \u201cFor the students and staff that want masks, wear them. That\u2019s your choice. It\u2019s your body. But don\u2019t take everyone else\u2019s choice away by demanding them to wear one.\u201d\r\n\r\nMedical professionals also weighed in on the conversation \u2013\u00a0with individuals on both sides of the fence, as well.\r\n\r\nPocahontas Memorial Hospital pharmacy director Kari Cooper spoke on behalf of the hospital and said it is PMH\u2019s stance that students and staff should be required to wear masks until the current wave of COVID-19 cases are resolved.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe strongly support following the guidelines outlined by the CDC for a safe return to school,\u201d she said. \u201cWhile each of us individually has our own thoughts and feelings regarding some of these issues, it\u2019s 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nCooper 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ll happily partner with our schools in any capacity to make it helpful to get vaccines to students and teachers and community members,\u201d she said. \u201cKnowing that our vaccine percentages in Pocahontas County are not where they need to be to combat the current coronavirus surge \u2013 and especially this new Delta variant \u2013\u00a0PMH 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 \u2013 regardless of vaccination status \u2013\u00a0must be in place.\u201d\r\n\r\nPMH 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe reason why the mask maybe helps is because if a kid comes to school and has COVID and is wearing a mask \u2013 when they do cough \u2013\u00a0they\u2019re 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe whole thing is the [number of particles] you get with the virus,\u201d he concluded.\r\n\r\nLee admitted that he personally dislikes masks, but says that they do help provide a barrier from the virus.\r\n\r\n\u201cI hate masks,\u201d he said. \u201cI\u2019m sure it\u2019s impossible to teach with them. I know it\u2019s hard to practice medicine wearing a mask and it\u2019s hard to do any kind of job wearing them. I don\u2019t like them at all, but until everyone is vaccinated, that\u2019s 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nDr. 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.\r\n\r\nInstead 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ve talked about flu in young children\u201d she said. \u201cComplications 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cThe CDC estimated the actual number of 2017-18 flu season deaths in pediatric patients was about 600,\u201d she continued. \u201cStaggering numbers. Strep throat. Who hasn\u2019t dealt with strep throat? Twenty to thirty percent of sore throats in children are caused from this.\u201d\r\n\r\nBeverage 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\nSchool 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cI feel it should be a choice,\u201d she said. \u201cI have researched this. I\u2019ve 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nFriel 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.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe need to build up immune systems,\u201d she said. \u201cI\u2019ve said that all along. I\u2019m not saying that COVID is not real. I\u2019ll be the first to say I am for vaccination. Everyone knows I stand firmly with that, only because it\u2019s doing something, because we could maybe stop the mutation of the virus with vaccination. It will slow it down.\r\n\r\n\u201cI\u2019m not going to back down on that,\u201d she continued. \u201cBut we live in America. We should have a choice. That\u2019s what makes us Americans. I want what\u2019s 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nAfter 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.\r\n\r\nDuring the discussion, board member Sam Gibson was the only one who said he fully agreed with Beam\u2019s recommendation to require masks. The other board members said they agreed with the majority of speakers who asked for it to be a choice.\u00a0\r\n\r\n\u201cWe are an institute of learning and one that should be in support of a scientifically-based body of knowledge,\u201d Gibson said. \u201cI just can\u2019t fathom going any direction other than trying to protect these kids. I just cannot imagine us deciding not to do this.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cI cannot imagine going against the people of Pocahontas County,\u201d board member Morgan McComb interjected. \u201cWe\u2019ve heard from teacher after teacher. We\u2019ve had emails from a few teachers that said they support masking.\u201d\r\n\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got teachers wanting it, too,\u201d Gibson said of the mandate.\r\n\r\n\u201cWe\u2019ve got a few teachers, but the majority of our teachers who are on the frontlines are saying no masks,\u201d McComb returned. \u201cTo me, to take away your democratic right says we don\u2019t care about the people that elected us. I respect Mr. Beam. I respect where he\u2019s 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.\u201d\r\n\r\nMcComb added that if the community and teachers were in agreement with Beam, he would be, too.\r\n\r\n\u201cI would be just as passionate if these people were all in here saying wear a mask,\u201d he said. \u201cI would be just as passionate because we serve the people of Pocahontas County.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe board voted \u2013\u00a04 to 1 \u2013 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.\u00a0\r\n\r\nThe 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.\r\n\r\nMiscellaneous and personnel agenda items will be published in the August 26 edition of The Pocahontas Times.\r\n\r\nThe next board meeting is Tuesday, August 31, at 6 p.m. at the board of education conference room.