The Smackover-Norphlet school board voted 3-2 to reintroduce a mask mandate for students and staff at a special meeting held Wednesday night.
After a lengthy discussion, board members Chris Long, Stephen Crecelius and Lynn Birchfield voted in favor of the term while board members Cliff Preston and Dustin Bagwell voted against.
The board has decided to impose masks on students and staff until COVID-related absences in the district fall below 5%. As of Wednesday evening, according to SNSD director Jason Black, 14% of students and 9% of staff were absent due to quarantine procedures.
The board had previously agreed to meet if the total number of students absent due to the COVID-related quarantine reaches 10%.
Board members voted unanimously in favor of a mask term in September; At that time, 11.5% of students in the district were out of school due to a positive COVID-19 test or quarantine. The district began the school year “strongly encouraging” but not requiring masks and lifted the September mandate when the number of cases and quarantines fell.
Discussion at the meeting revolved around the effectiveness of the masks, the outlook for the district’s COVID numbers, and reiterated a topic – the Arkansas Department of Health’s quarantine guidelines – that was discussed a lot during the meeting. a September 2021 meeting that preceded the unanimous vote of the board of directors. .
During that meeting, Black told attendees that the district has sought legal advice regarding quarantine requirements and has received legal advice that the district is obligated to follow state quarantine requirements and that the ADH has specifically placed the responsibility of adhering to quarantine procedures on local school districts.
“We have more measures in place [now] that we’ve probably never had, ”Black said Wednesday.
“We have three feet [distancing], which gives us a good distance to play with in our classrooms. When it was six feet – our buildings weren’t built for that so it was tough, a lot of kids would go home during that time. We set up the test to stay … it looks like eight students took part; of those eight, three returned home with COVID, ”Black said.
The test-to-stay option was implemented by the district on January 3. The program offers students exposed to COVID-19 at school the option to avoid quarantine if they are tested and monitored for symptoms for seven days at school after exposure and agree to wear a mask for the duration.
Quarantine can also be avoided if all students involved in the exhibition were “correctly and consistently [wearing] properly fitted masks ”, if the student has been fully immunized at least 14 days prior to exposure and has no symptoms or if the student is not vaccinated but has had a“ verified ”COVID-19 case in the 90 days after exposure and remains a symptom – free, as directed by ADH.
Black recommended the mask mandate policy that the board ultimately voted to adopt on Wednesday night.
“If we continue to grow at this rate, we will most likely be at 20% (absent students) by Friday. We have lost a few more staff tonight. If we continue to lose valuable staff for 10 days because of the isolation, Then we have to consider what we are doing to keep the school open. It can happen quickly if you are considering bus transport, if you are considering catering service. I would ask [the board] to consider requiring masks again, with the ability to be flexible if we find that once we put them on we can take them off if we fall below 5%, ”Black said.
Black later added in the meeting that the loss of several specialist quarantine staff, such as cafeteria workers, bus drivers and nurses, could force the district to switch to virtual learning.
Each member of the board in attendance took the floor to express their feelings towards the mask’s mandate.
“This is something we expected; nationally we expected it to happen, and sadly we have to face it. Whatever we have to do, we have to keep the kids in school. Quarantine numbers are the main source of students and staff staying home, not positive test results, ”Long said.
Preston has expressed his ambivalence and frustration over the mask warrant option.
“I agree that stopping the transmission – we’re not going to be able to do that. The way to stop it, in theory, is to send everyone home, but even then, most of our people are being sent home because of (COVID) transmission at home. We talked about taking a few weeks off to see if that would help, but we just had this with Christmas and now we have problems … The idea is, wear masks or not, transmissions will continue to occur … I think we’re going to wear masks or not, it’s going to spread and the same people are going to get sick who were going to get sick; people are going to go home but that’s the rule, ”Preston said.
Bagwell also expressed his opposition to the mask’s mandate.
“I’m actually just saying that whatever we do, this virus is more than likely about to run its course, whether we put the masks on or take them off. In my opinion, the best thing we can do is to do it. leave optional – for people who want to wear them, let them wear them, and for people who don’t want to put them on their children, don’t. Leave it to the parents’ freedom of choice, “a Bagwell said.
Preston and Bagwell both voted no on the proposed term.
Birchfield and Crecelius each agreed with Long on the need to move towards a mask mandate to keep the district schools open. Everyone then voted yes on the new mask mandate proposal.
“I have spoken to teachers especially in elementary school who say that it is imperative to keep our children in school. They say that last year when the children were out of school they lost so much more. that classroom knowledge – socialization, care, food – they missed so much. It’s not easy; we have teachers who really care about us and want to be in class and want their kids to be there. “said Birchfield.
Crecelius, who introduced the motion to impose the masks, has expressed reluctant support for the policy.
“I’m against masks, but we’re here to think about what’s best for our district. We’ve been fighting this for months… I’d like to see a percentage that we can reach and take them away,” Crecelius said. .
According to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement (ACHI), between 50 and 99 new cases of COVID-19 per 10,000 people in the SNSD region were identified between December 20, 2021 and January 3.