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Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus reads a recommendation from Upshur County Schools directors asking Upshur County Board of Education members to vote that the mask mandates be lifted and allow individuals and families the choice whether or not to wear face coverings on buses and inside Upshur County School buildings. / Photo by Beth Christian Broschart

Upshur County Schools unmasks, but board members say they will monitor future variants, potential outbreaks

TENNERTON – In early August 2021, as students and staff were preparing to return to in-person schooling, Upshur County Board of Education members voted to require face coverings for all students, service personnel and teachers on the buses and while inside the building for the 2021-2022 school year.

At the time, they said they planned to revisit the mandate when COVID-19 cases eased. During Tuesday’s Upshur County BOE meeting, members did revisit their mandate and issued an updated decision which took effect on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. The BOE voted, by majority, to allow individuals and families to make the decision of whether or not to wear face coverings on buses and while in school buildings.

“We agreed to recommend that face coverings be optional in all educational areas, including buses in Upshur County Schools based on personal and family choice,” Stankus said.

Stankus said Upshur County Schools would be following several neighboring school districts in revising their COVID-19 protocols as the number of COVID cases continues to drop in West Virginia. She said the decision is about family and personal choice and West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, as well as the state Department of Education, had announced the changes. Stankus said students and staff who choose to wear a face covering are free to do so, but Upshur County Schools wanted to “empower” those individuals to have the right to choose to go ahead and remove their face coverings as many have expressed they wish to do.

BOE Vice President Katie Loudin said she felt the case counts for COVID-19 coming down have been positive.

“It is something this board has gone back-and-forth on, and as it stands now, with the color map, face masks are not required,” Loudin said. “I do think there are a lot of counties around us who, in the past couple of weeks, have removed their mandates and so I think we should revisit and talk about our mandate.”

Stankus said she realizes there is some apprehension.

“Some families prefer that we keep the mask requirement, but this decision is really about family and personal choice, as we see it,” Stankus said. “We will continue to follow all of the mitigation strategies as recommended by the CDC and the Upshur County Health Department.”

Stankus said those mitigation strategies include continuing to deep clean and disinfect, which she said Upshur County Schools has been doing to a large extent, having even hired additional custodial help.

“Those folks are still on, and we are using physical distancing where possible as well as hand cleaning,” Stankus said. “All of those things we are already doing will continue to be completed.”

BOE member Patrick Long read a letter from an epidemiologist that said children and adults ages 5 years and up have had the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The letter also said masks had served as a critical secondary prevention measure, especially in schools.

“Despite contrary opinions, scientific evidence overwhelmingly supports the use of mask mandates to minimize viral transmission and COVID outbreaks in school settings,” Long read. “Mask mandates have helped to enable our schools to continue in-person instruction during this pandemic while keeping our children as safe as possible. However, as we enter a third year of the pandemic, we must consider the relaxing of certain health measurements in schools, mask mandates in particular. As we talk about renewing one of the layers of protection around our kids, it is important to talk about what we need to do to prepare for future outbreaks. Viruses, and this virus, in particular, have the innate ability to find chinks in a population’s armor in order to find new hosts.”

As Long read on, he shared the writer said that while COVID-19 is ebbing, that human being will likely have to learn to live with the virus much like we currently do with influenza. He said the letter went on to advise that if mask mandates are removed, folks must remain prepared to act “decisively to reinstate temporary measures, such as mask mandates, in order to ensure in-person education can continue.”

“We certainly want to keep our eyes open, our options open and be prepared to reinstate a face covering mandate, if necessary,” Long said. “The first thing we want to protect is our children.”

Stankus thanked Long for his words and assured BOE members that if needed, they would come back to the BOE if a face covering mandate needed to be put back in place.

BOE member Kristi Wilkerson made the motion to approve lifting the mask mandate, adding the reserve caveat if there are major outbreaks in schools or if there is another variant. The motion received a second by Loudin.

BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples, Loudin and Wilkerson voted to remove the face covering mandate on buses and in schools, allowing individuals and families to make the decision to wear or not wear face coverings. Long voted in opposition to removing the mandate. BOE member Dr. Greenbrier Almond was not present for Tuesday’s meeting.

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