School masking protocols debated

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

School districts plan post plans for return to school

Barry County schools have been formulating return to school plans for the coming year, and masking has become a sticking point for some local school boards.

For Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER III), districts were required to have a Safe Return to In-Person Instruction and Continuity of Services Plan (SRCSP) posted on their websites by June 23. ESSER III applications are due by Aug. 23.

The SRCSP consists of three parts: mitigation strategy policies, continuity of services and periodic revisions.

Since all Barry Country schools returned to in-person instruction for the 2020-2021 school year, the Barry County districts’ plans consisted mostly on continuing safe operations for the 2021-2022 school year.

The first part of the SRCSP deals with issues like physical distancing, masking, cleaning, vaccinations, contact screening, and more.

The requirements for the SRCSP were sent out by DESE, and one of the main goals of the ESSER III is to get students in school in person. However, these requirements did not take away the power of the school district to make the decision on how it would respond to each topic.

In order to keep as many students in school for the 2020-2021 year, all Barry County schools ultimately required masking throughout the school year for all students and staff.

All Barry County school districts have posted their versions of the SRCSP on their websites by the required date. However, one district had more of a public response than others.

At the Southwest school district’s June 17 board meeting, nearly two dozen parents and residents attended.

According to Tosha Tilford, Southwest superintendent, when it came to masking, the Board of Education had to decide on either implementing a mask mandate, meaning masks would be required at school for the 2021-2022 school year, or no mask mandate at all, meaning masks would be optional.

The results of this decision could impact quarantines based on contact tracing, as well as quarantine length.

If districts chose not to have a mask mandate, they would not be eligible for modified quarantines.

Tilford mentioned a federal order by the CDC as of February 2021 which required masks on school buses or other forms of public transportation.

Due to this, Tilford recommended that the board decide the districts masking requirements in two parts, one for school bus use and one for building use.

According to the CDC, masks are required on school buses by passengers and drivers by an order which applies to all public transportation conveyances.

With such an influx of attendance at the June school board meeting, Danny Dalton, Southwest School Board president, reminded attendees that unless they signed up to be part of the communications for the meeting, they were not permitted to speak out, as this was not a public hearing meeting.

Tilford said as a person, she doesn’t have a “dog in the fight” when it came to masking decisions.

“As an educator,” she said. “What is important is for kids to be in school — it’s the only reason I am an educator.”

Tilford told the board because of the federally regulated bus mask order, the district could lose federal funding, including free and reduced lunches, Title funds and ESSER funds.

Dalton said it was a no-brainer to have masks mandated on buses due to the risk of losing federal funds.

Brian Robbins, Southwest board member, asked if there was air conditioning on all busses and how long the longest ride is for a student, to which Tilford replied there was not air conditioning on all busses and the longest ride for a student is approximately 40 minutes.

“You can’t put money on a person’s choice,” Robbins said in reference to the possible loss of federal funds.

Tilford said there will be quarantines, and without mask mandates, the district would be without modified quarantine options that have lessened the number of quarantines.

Tilford also reminded the board that the topic could be revisited every six months.

In addition, Tilford mentioned that for the 2021-2022 school year, there would be no AMIX, or forgiveness of school days being missed as there was over the last year.

Tilford said the district couldn’t afford to add air conditioning to all of the district busses, and risk losing federal funding.

Dalton said he would like to see required masks on buses as to not risk losing federal funds.

Robbins said he believes the money aspect was put out there to sway districts to require masks.

Dalton asked how many students in the district are considered “high risk.”

Kandie Eads, special services director, advised the board there were approximately six students at Southwest considered high risk.

Ruth Henderson, Southwest board member, said her main concern is keeping students in school, she would be worried about senior students missing things in their senior year, like the 2020 seniors did.

The vote was to make approve optional masking in all areas including bussing for the 2021-2022 school year. The vote carried 4-2, with Henderson and Dalton opposed. The SRCSP was then approved 6-0.

Tilford said it is not likely that Southwest would lose federal funds, but it could happen.

“From [Southwest fiscal year 2021] annual secretary board report the district received $1,273,295 in federal funds and the overall revenues were $8,323,925,” she said. “That is an increase from the district’s usual amount of revenue because of the additional CARES funding.”

The Cassville school district’s version of the SRCSP, Return to Learn and ReEntry Plan, will recommend students grades 6-12 wear a mask when social distancing cannot be achieved.

However, all students and drivers will be required to wear a mask while riding on a school bus.

The Wheaton school district’s SRCSP says students in pre-K through 12th grade and staff will have the option to wear masks or PPE that over their nose and mouth.

In addition, all students are recommended to wear a mask or PPE on the bus.

The Exeter school district decided that continuous usage of face coverings by young children, pre-K through third grade is not recommended. However, parents can provide facemasks or covering for those children if they would like. Students in grades 4-12 will be encouraged to wear face masks when social distancing cannot be achieved.

Staff, including bus drivers, will be provided masks for daily use.

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