RUSSIAVILLE - The Western School Board voted 6-1 Wednesday to mandate masks for all students, faculty and staff starting next week. Western Superintendent Kathryn Reckard shared data showing a dramatic increase in COVID-19 cases and the number of quarantined students this year. Reckard said at least 484 staff and students have been quarantined since school started on Aug. 16.
“Our main concern is keeping children in schools so they can get an education,” board member Jill Newby said.
The effectiveness of masks was hotly debated during the meeting. Reckard said she had previously sent out two different surveys to evaluate parents’ and staff’s opinions on masks. The first survey showed 37% of respondents were in favor of masks and 63% were opposed.
The second survey was sent after the governor relaxed quarantine rules in schools that require everyone to wear a mask. Reckard said the results of that survey showed 51% supported a mask mandate and 49% were opposed.
“Obviously people were very divided,” Newby said. “Our survey was very close. You know you’re going to make some people unhappy, but we’re here to do what’s best for our students.”
Concerned parents and teachers were able to share their positions on the mandate before the school board voted.
“I think we are kidding ourselves if we pretend like kids don’t get COVID,” said Laura Stage, a pediatric physician who spoke in favor of the school board endorsing a mask mandate.
“I wholeheartedly believe masks are safe.”
Jennifer Sylvester, a family medicine physician and a member of Moms for Liberty, argued against Western enforcing a mask mandate.
“The masks have been shown for years not to do anything,” Sylvester said.
“If [COVID] is going to be with us, [masks] should not be the new norm.”
Many of the school board members who spoke said they are interested in doing whatever it takes to keep students in school.
Board president Donna Shepherd said she recognized that however the board voted, some people would be unhappy. Shepherd was the only board member to vote against the mandate. She said it was a difficult decision, but she sees the number of cases decreasing and wants to keep kids in school while following state guidelines.
Board member Harry Kenworthy said he does not like masks and only wears them when required. Despite that, he said Western should make disposable masks available to students.
“It’s obvious smart and capable people can disagree,” Kenworthy said. He told everyone who attended the meeting they are setting a good example for their children by being involved.
“I ask you to support any decision we come to.”
There is currently no option to opt students out of the mask requirement, but Reckard said students can bring a note from their doctor if they have a medical exemption.