Controversial Mask Mandate Issues Dominate Pocahontas BOE Meeting
The August 10th Pocahontas County Board of Education meeting, was jammed full of citizens wishing to express their opinions about re instituting indoor mask mandates in the schools this year. About seven (7) citizens, presumably mostly parents of students, stood holding signs which said things such as “UNMASK OUR CHILDREN.” “MASKS ARE TO COVID AS A CHAIN-LINK FENCE IS TO A FLY” and “MY CHILD MY CHOICE.”
The room was packed, however only a few, including one (1) of the five (5) board members, wore masks, which were not mandated by the state or by the BOE at the time of this meeting. Another one hundred (100) people attended the meeting virtually.
Of the nineteen (19) citizens who addressed the board either in person or via Zoom Meeting, seven (7) supported re-instituting the mask mandate to start this school year, eleven (11) favored parental choice whether their child wears a mask or not, and one, seemed to favor parental choice, but did not directly say so. Five (5) of those who spoke were teachers who all opposed implementing a mask mandate for either students or staff.
Two medical doctors spoke. Dr. Matt Lee, an Emergency Department Physician at Pocahontas Memorial Hospital (PMH) spoke out strongly in favor of the mask mandate. Dr. Lee said those are CDC recommendations and he supports them. He said that if a person with COVID-19 coughs or sneezes, they can eject one-hundred thousand virus particles in the air, but that number goes down to about one-thousand particles if they are wearing a mask, and someone wearing a mask who receives the cough or sneeze from a masked person might only get one hundred virus particles, making it less likely they will develop COVID-19. He said that PMH has just recently had to send a twenty-year old and a three-month-old child to ICUs in other hospitals because of COVID-19. He also said the Delta strain of COVID seems to affect younger people more then the original strain, and the Delta strain will not peak for about three months.
Doctor Jenifer Beverage, a Family Practice Physician, while not directly stating opposition to the mask mandates, did implied opposition. She said her two children who attend the schools are concerned about how a mask mandate will affect their participation in sports and about the negative effects masks have on learning. Dr. Beverage reminded everyone that traffic accidents account for about 11.7% of all pediatric deaths and seasonal flue, Strep Throat, and Hand, Foot and Mouth disease also cause deaths and serious complications for children. Dr. Beverage also said the surgical masks which most students wear do not seal around the edges so are of limited value in stopping the spread of COVID-19 viruses.
Most of the speakers in opposition to the mask mandates cited Constitutional rights; governmental over reach; limited effectiveness of the masks; parental rights; and the negative effects of masks on students which include: low morale; drop-out rates; truancy; lack of socialization; depression; inability to learn; and discouraging class participation. Some talked about how younger students need to see and learn from facial expressions and masks block that. All believed the choice for each child should be made by their parents.
Those who favored the mask mandates felt CDC recommendations should be followed to reduce risk.
When it was decision time, Superintendent Beam provided each Board member with a handout of his reasons for recommending the indoor mask mandate. Board President Sue Hollandsworth asked School Nurse Jenny Friel for her thoughts. Friel said parental rights were important and the daily protocols of taking temperatures and checking for symptoms of every student, staff member and visitor upon entry into a school, isolating students who don’t pass these screenings, and keeping staff and visitors out if they don’t pass the screening, should be sufficient to prevent any major COVID spread. She recommended that the mask requirements be automatically reinstated upon recommendation of the local Health Department. Friel also said that since kids on school buses cannot socially distance, masks should be required for students while riding on school buses.
Four of the board voted for parental choice instead of a mask mandate. Only member Sam Gibson voted in favor of instituting the mask mandate again. The Board also voted to require students to be masked while riding school buses and voted to offer remote learning at all grade levels to give parents another option if they do not want their children to attend school unless all students wear masks indoors.
Those people looking to acquire truly effective masks can do an internet search for sources for U.S. made N-95 masks. In part two of this report, we will discuss other actions taken at this meeting.