Buckhannon-Upshur High School Student Body President Cameron Zuliani addresses the Upshur County Board of Education during their regular meeting Tuesday. Cameron said she talked with students who said they are glad to be back to school in person, and most of the students she spoke with have no issues wearing a mask to stay safe.

Upshur Schools and the great mask debate: Students, parents, teachers and medical experts weigh in on a weighty issue

BUCKHANNON – Upshur County Board of Education members voted to require face coverings for all students, teachers and staff while indoors when Upshur County is listed as orange or red on the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources COVID-19 County Alert System map.

A motion was made by BOE Vice President Katie Loudin and seconded by BOE member Patrick Long that Upshur County Schools adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Face coverings will be required for all students and staff while indoors, regardless of vaccination status, while the county is orange or red on the WVDHHR County Alert System, which is updated daily.
  • Non-compliance by staff will be addressed by administrators following county face covering non-compliance information and procedures.
  • Student non-compliance will be addressed utilizing the disciplinary measures as identified in the student code of conduct and protocol at school level.
  • Face coverings are required on all buses regardless of the WVDHHR County Alert System per the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention order.

Loudin, Long and Kristi Wilkerson, who attended Tuesday’s meeting virtually, voted yes to implementing those face covering guidelines. BOE President Dr. Tammy Samples abstained from voting, and Dr. Greenbrier Almond was not present at Tuesday’s BOE meeting.

Long said he felt it was healthy for everyone to come together and share their different opinions.

“That is the foundation of this country,” Long said. “Being able to come together and speak your mind. It is freedom of speech. Our rights are truly one of the greatest things about America and our freedoms. One of the things we seem to forget is that along with those rights come responsibilities. One of those responsibilities of the government is to promote the general welfare and that is essentially what these health guidelines are from our government entities – the health department and the CDC.”

Samples said county boards of education are obligated to provide a safe and healthy environment for students to learn and employees to work. She said there are 3,800 students and 700 employees in the Upshur County School system, and they have connections across the county.

“It is our responsibility to keep people safe, and that is our bottom line,” Samples said. “We do that in a variety of ways but for me, that is the bottom line.”

Upshur County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Sara Lewis Stankus thanked those who came out to share their opinions.

“It took courage and I admire that,” Stankus said.

During the delegations and public comments portion of Tuesday’s meeting, nearly 20 elected officials, students, parents, teachers, community leaders, health care providers and concerned residents shared their opinions, concerns and ideas with BOE members regarding a potential face covering mandate for Upshur County students, teachers and staff. Many folks shared reasons they believe a face covering mandate would be a good idea, while others shared reasons they felt face covering mandates were not necessary.

Students speak up

Buckhannon-Upshur High School Student Body President Cameron Zuliani said students are happy to be back in the classrooms; however, she said she could not help noticing that some of the students and staff appear worried about the spike in the number of COVID -19 cases and worry over some students who are choosing not to wear face coverings in school.

“I went around school today and asked kids if they would rather attend school virtually or would you rather be here with a mask on so we can learn safely,” Zuliani said. “Nearly everyone told me they would rather wear a mask.”

Zuliani said students are realizing the Delta variant is affecting students their age.

“Many people my age are taking precautions, and there are some kids who are genuinely scared of making sure they do not contract the virus,” she told the BOE.

B-UHS Junior Hank Phillips said he is enjoying being back to in-person learning and getting to spend time with his friends.

“However, tonight you have a very important decision to make that we either continue this form of normalcy or jeopardize the well-being of Upshur County children and students,” Phillips said. “I want to express tonight just how very important this decision is and how it will impact the students of Upshur County.”

Hank Phillips, a Buckhannon-Upshur High School junior, said he is excited to be able to attend classes in person and spend time with his fellow Buccaneers. He reminded the BOE of some recent headlines he finds disturbing regarding the rise in COVID-19 cases and urged board members to keep a face covering policy in effect for the safety of students, families, staff and Upshur community members.

Over the past week, Upshur County has seen a 92 percent increase in coronavirus cases, Phillips said.

“With hospitalizations up 164 percent as of today, 39 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated, making us one of the least fully vaccinated states in the country,” Phillips said. “No one wants to hear these statistics, but there is a difference between listening and ignoring them. Thirty-eight people in our town have died with the coronavirus. With an unmasked environment and a raging Delta variant, unfortunately, that outcome is going to be an undeniably evil and this virus has no mercy.”

Phillips told BOE members if they want to protect Upshur County students, they know what they need to do.

“The students’, children’s, grandparents’, siblings’ and parents’ health, safety and well-being are in your hands tonight,” Phillips concluded.

Senator shares his sentiments

Republican Senator Robert Karnes, who represents West Virginia’s 11th Senatorial District, said several of his constituents contacted him with concerns about mask requirements.

“The number of homeschoolers in the State of West Virginia has more than doubled in the last 18 months,” Karnes said. “Homeschooling has been growing for decades, but it has never grown as quickly as it has in the last 18 months. The reason is because of the measures that have been taken against COVID and the mitigation measures – lockdowns, mask mandates and so on. The number one reason people are choosing to homeschool in West Virginia today is because of COVID and the mitigation strategies that have been put in place – particularly the lockdowns and mask mandates.”

Karnes said the number of kids leaving the public school system should cause the BOE to be concerned.

“I believe you lost more than 100 kids (students) in the last year-and-a-half. Is that correct?” Karnes asked.

However, Stankus told Karnes that Upshur County Schools had gained 68 students last school year.

“We were one of only two counties in West Virginia that gained students during the pandemic,” Stankus said.

“Last year, we had 379 homeschool students,” Director of Federal Programs Jody Johnson reported. “This year, we have 276 homeschool students.”

“Really? I am surprised because that is not the trend across the state,” Karnes said, to which Stankus replied, “I think we are very unique here in Upshur County.”

Karnes claimed face coverings do not actually work to prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19 and its variants.

“I am concerned what we are going to see is more kids pulled out of public schools – and a greater cost being born by county boards of education having to deal with kids being taken out of the public school system,” he said. “The data that is out there is not indicative that masks actually work.”

“I have a study here in front of me from the CDC – who are the very same folks that are saying everyone should wear masks,” Karnes continued, “and this study looked at schools in Georgia that mandated masks versus those who did not have a mask mandate, and the result of their study is that not statistically significant where mask use was optional. They did not make a difference.”

Sen. Robert Karnes, Republican, represents the 11th Senatorial District of West Virginia. Karnes said masks don’t actually work and will result in more parents pulling their kids out of public schools to homeschool them because they can’t stomach the mask mandate.

Parents divided over face covering requirement: Many want choice, others advocate for safety

Todd Starkey said he went to the Board of Education Office to talk with the doctors and noticed a lot of the employees at the Central Office were not wearing masks at their desks.

“If they do not have to wear a mask at their desks, then why are we forcing these kids to do it,” Starkey asked. “I come up here and have a meeting with an employee in the building, private office and what do they do? They come in and take their mask off and put it on their desk. Why do you guys get special treatment?”

Starkey said he picked up a box of masks the other day and he read that the masks were only intended to be used for four hours and then thrown away.

“Our children are wearing masks for 10 to 12 hours a day – on the school bus and through the day until they ride the school bus home,” Starkey said. “They are supposed to be worn for four hours. The amount of bacteria that is caught in those masks – these masks do not filter the virus. If you think they filter the virus, you are completely wrong. It only catches the droplets from where you sneeze or cough.”

Starkey said the BOE, by mandating face coverings, has taken the parents’ choices away from them.

“We know our kids. We know what we want. We feel like we should have the choice,” Starkey said.

Jennifer Clem said she is a parent and advocates for parents to have the choice of letting their children not wear face coverings in school.

“You are taking away our choice,” Clem said. “Who is going to be held responsible when all our kids begin getting sick because they are forced to wear a mask for eight hours a day, breathing in pathogens? You should be held responsible for taking my choice away.”

B-UHS teacher and parent Rob Carr said protecting his daughters is his first priority.

“As a parent, my greatest responsibility is to protect my daughters,” Carr said. “None of my children are old enough to meet the requirement for vaccination. None of them are eligible to participate in the program. When my daughters are in the presence of the Upshur County School System, it is our responsibility as a school system to take on the responsibility to protect our children.”

“As a teacher, I take that very seriously,” Carr added. “I want all of my students to be just as protected in my classroom as I would if they were my own [children].”

Carr said it is important to understand that while U.S. citizens are afforded personal choices, liberties and freedoms within the U.S., those civil liberties and rights are not unlimited.

“They end where someone else’s rights and liberties can be infringed [upon],” Carr said. “So, choice does occur until the point that your choice could endanger or infringe upon the rights of other people – including the students of Upshur County Schools.”

Carr said he was happy to hear others speak about wanting parents’ voices to be heard.

“I implore the board to consider the students in our school system who are not old enough to be vaccinated that are potentially put at risk by unmasked individuals in the building and do the right thing to protect my children and all the children in the Upshur County School System by taking into account the greater good of our community rather than just the handful of opinions that might want that choice.”

Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department officials weigh in

Dr. Joseph Reed, medical director for the Upshur-Buckhannon Health Department, said he is concerned about those who have gotten older and wish that their concerns could be ‘our concerns.’

“I commend those who have spoken tonight to both sides of the question,” Reed said. “I think it is important that we hear input from all parts of this because it is one way we can be contributors to our society, but ultimately, someone has to make decisions.”

Reed said the best evidence he understands is that vaccines and masks help prevent or slow the spread of COVID-19.

“I would personally hope that the time will come when we can require the vaccines as well as masks,” Reed said. “I think we are a step in that direction with the final approval for the Pfizer vaccine.”

Reed said in the last few days he learned that some health care facilities will be requiring employees to be immunized to protect themselves, the workforce and the public.

“We know some of the people will leave their employment for that reason,” Reed said. “As parents, we have the option of home schooling our kids. This is not what we recommend – but it is an option if we really strongly disagree with the decisions the board may make. Thanks again for each presentation and be civil in your discussions with those involved.”

“Do not shoot the messenger and give your message clearly,” Reed concluded. “I commend the difficult decisions the board has to make and encourage them to look forward not to just this decision, but how we can improve education in Upshur County as part of the State of West Virginia.”

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