Large crowd confronts county school board about masks

Henry County Medical Center Director of Pharmacy Paula Bell stands to speak, surrounded by a crowd of about 80 people who attended Tuesday’s Henry County Board of Education meeting. About half the people who attended the meeting spoke regarding masks and whether the students should be forced to wear them in schools.

The voices, opinions and concerns of about 40 people were heard regarding the mask mandate in Henry County schools during Thursday’s lengthy Board of Education meeting.

Some of the shared sentiments from those who spoke during the meeting’s citizens’ forum included concern about lessons missed because of contract tracing, parents with children with medical issues that worsen when they wear a mask, concern about not being able to see facial expressions of other students and teachers, concerns about long-term detriments that a mask mandate might have on children, claiming that COVID-19 is a political plot to make money, asserting that the school board members are hypocrites who don’t actually care about students and their health, criticizing doctors in attendance and ridiculing their statements, claiming that mask mandates violate constitutional rights, that COVID-19 can be contracted by eye contact and that the disease has been around for 20 years now, and empowering the idea that masks do absolutely nothing to help prevent COVID-19.

Not all persons who spoke were against masks, which still has an opt-out clause enacted by Gov. Bill Lee.

Several doctors in attendance were emotional in standing against the notions mentioned earlier, as they had done in school board meetings for both local school systems prior to Thursday’s meeting.

“I’ve watched people die every day and for you to stand here and act like COVID isn’t real amazes me,” said Paula Bell, Henry County Medical Center director of pharmacy.

A 12-year-old Harrelson School student pleaded for mask usage and vaccinations. She spoke for her friends who have gotten COVID-19 and have had to stay home.

“If students are able to go and ace this while wearing a mask, I don’t get what the concern is,” she said.

One man criticized the fact the school system’s football players are out playing with no masks despite a mandate being put in place. He said that doesn’t make any sense.

Several parents stood firm on their opinions that they know what’s best for their kid, some began screaming toward the board members that they can’t force them to make their children do anything. Others said they were simply exhausted and worried about how long COVID-19 has and maybe will go on for, and that things need to just get back to normal.

Some tempers flared, but nothing more than an aggressive tone of voice during a couple of debates and an occasional mocking comment.

BOARD MEMBERS RESPOND

Ultimately, once the 2-1/2-hour long citizens’ forum concluded, the school board gave its responses to the crowd.

“I hear you, I hear your pain and I thank you for speaking from your heart,” said Director of Schools Leah Watkins. “We are trying to make decisions to protect our children and our community. We are seeing rates of COVID that we never saw last year. I have no agenda, but I want to keep our doors open. Regardless if masks work or not, we don’t have to send kids home if they wear one. Those are the guidelines from the department of health that we are expected to follow.”

Watkins shared that 206 children were sent home despite not having positive COVID-19 cases during the first nine days of the school year.

From Aug. 26 to Thursday, while the masking regulations have been in effect, just 106 students were sent home because of contact tracing.

“If a child goes to school with a mask on and they test positive, even if they’re around a group of other kids, only they get sent home. Unless the kids around them aren’t wearing a mask, then they have to get sent home, too,” said Watkins.

Lee’s opt-out order ends Oct. 5, just two days prior to the school board’s next scheduled meeting. The board eventually voted to implement a parental opt-out option for wearing masks in school as part of the school system’s official COVID-19 policy, meaning that option would extend past the day when Lee’s order expires. Parents who request exemption from masks for reasons other than health concerns may be granted their request.

Board member Jim McCampbell made the motion to approve this policy update, but not without speaking to the people who criticized them during the citizens’ forum.

“A few of you made statements that said as a board that we don’t care about our students. We’re trying to keep the schools open, we’re trying to keep people from getting sick. I don’t know how many of you watch the news, but there’s teachers dying in schools that don’t have a mask mandate. I’d say they’re the ones that don’t care,” said McCampbell.

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