BUCKHANNON — During the Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening, Board members voted to continue the implementation of a mask mandate for Upshur County Schools. At the previous meeting on August 10, the BOE voted to mandate masks in schools following COVID-19 spikes in Upshur County—a mandate they would revisit at Tuesday’s meeting.
Parents, students and staff members attended to voice their opinions and ideas for both sides of the argument. The BOE heard nearly 20 public comments, generating 2 hours of discussion and debate.
WV State Senator Robert Karnes provided insight on the rising number of homeschooled students. “The number of homeschoolers—in the last 18 months—has more than doubled in the State of West Virginia,” Karnes emphasized. Explaining his opinion that these numbers are due to mask mandates and COVID precautions in schools, Karnes described the financial loss that results from homeschooled students.
Superintendent Dr. Sara Lewis-Stankus and Jody Johnson countered the argument and informed Senator Karnes that Upshur County has actually gained students who left homeschooling to attend school in person. Johnson stated, “Last year, we were at 375 [homeschooled students]; right now, we’re at 276.” Karnes, surprised, asked the Board if they were aware that these numbers are inconsistent with the rest of the state. Dr. Stankus added, “I think we are very unique here in Upshur County.”
Jennifer Leigh, parent of an Upshur County student, offered the next public comment. She explained her frustrations, stating that parents have no choice in this decision for their children. “I’m allowed to advocate for my own child. Not you, not the state, not the government—you don’t have the right. This is America, and I have bore my own children. They are mine,” she stated. Leigh included her concerns for students who may have lost an entire year of education due to their lack of internet and resources.
Another parent, Todd Starkey, explained that he met with several Board members at the BOE building, claiming that several individuals in the office were not masked. He inquired, “If they don’t have to wear a mask at their desks, then why are we forcing these kids to do it?” Starkey explained that the masks provided for students are not to be worn longer than 4 hours, according to the information on the box. “Our children are wearing them for 10-12 hours a day—on the school bus in the morning, to school, until they get home,” Starkey described. “These masks don’t filter the virus.”
Parent Misty Gregory was joined by her daughter, a student at Buckhannon-Upshur High School. Gregory notified the Board that her daughter was secluded in the corner of her classroom, and said she was prohibited from participating in the activities and projects during class due to her polite request to not wear a mask. Gregory added, “I am not against the masks. If someone feels comfortable wearing the mask, by all means, wear it.” Gregory and her daughter advocated strongly for their freedom to choose whether or not to mask up.
Hank Phillips, junior at B-UHS, shared his concerns with the Board. Phillips explained his excitement to be back in the building with his peers, receiving an in-person education. He expressed fears that this will come to a stop if the Board votes against the mandate. “Over the past week, Upshur County has seen a 92% increase in coronavirus cases, becoming a dark red eyesore on the state’s map,” Phillips stated. “If you would like to protect the children of Upshur County Schools, you know what to do.”
Parent Jennifer Clem reiterated that parents should be able to mask their kids as they see fit. “There are several studies that show that children are an extremely low risk of getting the COVID illness. They are not driving the spread of COVID,” she expressed.
Upshur County teacher and parent Robert Carr expressed his concerns for the safety of his students and children alike. “I want all of my students to be just as protected in my classroom as I would if they were my own children,” said Carr. “Do the right thing to protect my children, and all of the children in the Upshur County school system by taking into account the greater good of our community.”
Wilson Harvey, Social and Emotional Learning Specialist at B-UHS, shared his concern regarding students’ wellbeing. He emphasized the importance of having masks that work, as well as his thoughts towards the enforcement of the mask mandates. “The decisions you make tonight could be our only weapon to keep the students in schools,” Harvey suggested. “If we say that we value our students’ health, then we should have quality equipment available to them.”
Dr. Teresa Poling shared her healthcare expertise as she emphasized, “Public health policies are for the greater good.” She explained that masking up is a small thing you can do for your fellow man, as it keeps others safe from you. Poling stated, “Public health policies are bigger than any one person’s personal preference. You do not have the freedom to put other’s health in peril.”
Dr. Joseph Reed shared his opinion on behalf of the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department, outlining his belief that vaccines and masks work. “I personally hope that the time will come where we can require the vaccine as well as masks. I think we’re a step in that direction with the final approval of the Pfizer vaccine.”
Following many public comments and concerns, BOE members explained their gratitude to those who came to voice their opinions and ideas. Dr. Tammy Samples added, “County Boards of Education are obligated to provide a safe and healthy environment for students to learn, and employees to work.” Katie Loudin made the motion to require masks until Upshur County is “green” on the state’s infection map.
The mask mandate passed with three votes, and the Board outlined the following guidelines:
1. Follow the School Recovery and Guidance Document from WVDE.
2. Face coverings will be required for all students and staff, regardless of vaccination status while county is orange or red status on the WVDHHR County Alert System (https://dhhr.wv.gov/Covid-19). This system updates daily.
3. Non-compliance by staff will be addressed by administrators following county face covering non-compliance information and procedures.
4. Student non-compliance will be addressed utilizing the disciplinary measures as identified in the student code of conduct and protocol at school level.
5. Face coverings are required on all buses regardless of the WVDHHR County Alert System per the CDC order.