BUCKHANNON – As Upshur County students, service personnel and teachers head back to in-school learning for the 2021-2022 school year, they will need to remember to pack a face covering.
During Tuesday’s Upshur County Board of Education meeting, members voted to require wearing face coverings for all students, service personnel and teachers on the buses and while inside the buildings for the 2021-2022 school year. Four BOE members voted in favor of the face covering requirement — BOE Vice President Katie Loudin, BOE member Kristi Wilkerson, BOE member Dr. Greenbrier Almond and BOE member Patrick Long. BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples did not vote.
Recently, the West Virginia Department of Education issued their Fall 2021 School Recovery & Guidance information which ‘provides guidance so county boards of education may work with their local health departments and develop plans that best meet the needs of their communities.’ Accordingly, during Tuesday’s BOE meeting, Upshur County Schools Director of School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Dr. Jeffery Harvey introduced Dr. Joseph Reed, medical director of the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department.
Reed told BOE members his recommendation was to follow the guidelines of the State Board of Education.
Addressing Reed, Long noted there were numerous new COVID cases in Upshur County in the last few days and asked him if he felt Upshur County was in an ‘extreme situation.’
“We do not know where it is going, but we have had a major increase,” Reed replied. “Twenty-two of the 34 new cases over the weekend had been immunized. We think that decreases the severity of the illness and immunization is still very important. I encourage you all to talk to your friends and neighbors and get immunized if you already have not. Pretty soon, we hope we will have full approval for the vaccine – that may help with those who are hesitant to be immunized.”
Reed also mentioned that in the near future, the COVID vaccine will hopefully be approved for children 12 and under.
Long asked Reed if, in his opinion, he thought back-to-school in Upshur County should include using masks.
“I think we all should be masking in school,” Reed answered Long. “And I think we should be masking in other public venues.”
Loudin said she had been contacted by a lot of very concerned parents and families on both sides of the mask issue.
“I think I have a lot of concerns about the under-12 population not having the option to get vaccinated yet,” Loudin said. “Something else I was interested in is Dr. Reed’s opinion on the guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics for school re-entry. They are recommending universal masking for multiple reasons including keeping down instances of not only COVID, but respiratory illnesses. It’s an equity issue so our teachers and staff do not become the vaccine police.”
Loudin said she would love to see students attend classes in-person this year.
“I think if our weapons are these mitigation tools, we should be using every weapon we have at our disposal,” Loudin said. “I would be curious to know from Dr. Reed and Dr. Harvey if there is a possibility to talk about face coverings following some version of the state map? Do we mask because of the color? Do we mask now as a temporary measure, lifting it later? You are the experts, and I am happy to listen to your expert guidance here.”
“The CDC recommends anybody over the age of 2 be masked in public education,” Reed answered. “I am in favor of that recommendation. I also understand that our population may not support that. I realize it is not possible for the teachers to be the police, nor do we have other police activity that will back up forced masking. I think that is a personal way we can contribute to the welfare of our educational system, and I would plead with people to consider that as well as the feeling that this is an invasion of personal rights – which I disagree with – but I respect their thoughts.”
Reed said his plea is that people consider not just themselves but everyone else.
Harvey said during re-entry planning, some suggested requiring folks to mask up when the county map color was red – and possibly orange.
“I do think that is a metric and I think, over time, it has become the accepted metric,” Harvey said. “I think there could be some wisdom in that. I think there is some value in saying we would do it for ‘X’ or ‘Y’ time because of the situation we have right now and give ourselves time to revisit that. That gives us something we can revisit and re-evaluate and would serve as a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Long said last year, the BOE was considering whether school would be remote or in-person, and he said that is not the consideration at this time.
“We are just asking people to consider wearing a mask,” Long said. “But first, consider getting vaccinated. I think in our school system, we can certainly require everyone to wear a mask. All the science says a mask reduces respiratory passage. We should have everyone wear a mask whether they are vaccinated or not in school and on the school buses until we get out of the red … or maybe even out of the orange.”
Attendee Brittany Westfall told BOE members that everyone is 18 months into the pandemic.
“We all know the risks and we all know what can happen if we are exposed,” Westfall said. “That in itself tells me wearing a mask helps prevent catching it. I think you should consider mask wearing optional. If I do not want my child to wear a mask, I know what I am risking. If I want them to wear a mask, I know the perks and benefits of that. I really think you should consider giving us as parents the option to mask our child or not.”
Reed said his dream would be to see a COVID vaccine booster developed that had a flu vaccine combined with it, “but I have not heard anyone suggest that is even possible,” he added.
Wilkerson asked if there is a federal mandate that requires masks on buses, and Harvey replied that there is a CDC order that requires masking on all forms of public transit. The order is still in place and the state did not take that issue up in their guidance, he said.
“Given the numbers we have currently, I frankly cannot fathom that we would go back to school and just nothing is going on at all and here we go,” Wilkerson said. “It is difficult to know what to do. It has been the name of the game for 18 months or more. But, if we have a possibility of doing something to keep our students safe, I think we need to consider that.”
Loudin asked what the protocol was for staff who test positive, and Harvey said they would be required to take sick days as the COVID leave program is no longer in place.
“This Delta variant seems to be hitting the kids,” Long said. “So, I think it is important for us to think about the kids and not what the parents think, necessarily.”
Samples said she felt conflicted.
“I have thought long and hard about so much for days,” she said, tearing up. “I keep thinking it is the parents who vote for us – that is a true statement and that is who puts us in office or makes us not be elected – but when it comes right down to it, we work for the kids, and they cannot vote.”
“I have to vote, or I have to decide the best thing for kids,” she continued. “Sometimes that might go against what I think personally, but my job is to do what is best for kids. Do I think parents should have a choice? Maybe, but I do not know when we are red. We want our kids in school. This may be the only way to keep them in school because if we send them out there and we have an entire school infected, then they are not going to school.”
Wilkerson said the guidance from the state board says ‘any mask requirements are at the discretion of county boards of education working in collaboration with their local health department.’
“I think Dr. Reed has been pretty clear in what he is recommending tonight,” Wilkerson said. “As an elected official, we have to balance what our constituents say. Half want one thing and the other want another thing – and what we ultimately believe is in the best interest of who we serve – which is our students. So, again, it’s difficult decision. If I am looking at the state guidance, it says to look at the recommendation of the local health department and they said they recommend masks. Today, we are the most infectious county in the state …”
BOE members, who by a majority vote passed the face covering requirement, will re-evaluate the mandate during their next meeting, slated for 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24 at the Buckhannon-Upshur High School auditorium.