Face coverings (masks) will be required for all students kindergarten through 12th grade, teachers, staff and visitors at Pea Ridge schools beginning Thursday, Sept. 2, through Monday, Sept. 13, following an emotionally-charged special School Board meeting Wednesday, Sept. 1.
The meeting, called Wednesday morning, was held to a nearly full audience, the majority of which were parents in opposition to a mask mandate.
Superintendent Keith Martin shared data, which he said is available on the school's website, showing an increase over the first two weeks of school of daily positive cases and students absent due to quarantine from close contact.
"I know this is a divisive subject," Martin began the meeting saying. "This can be the type of decision that can tear a community apart. We hope this doesn't do that."
Board president Jeff Neil said that as of 5:26 p.m. he had received more than 100 emails from parents of students about the proposed mask mandate -- 37 were opposed to the mandate and 70 were in favor of it.
"Some were very well thought out, some were threatening and one simply said 'I'm praying over y'all,'" Neil said.
Martin began the meeting sharing data showing that as of Sept. 1, there are 33 students and two staff members who tested positive for covid. He said there are 176 students quarantined and 50 of those are from contacts at school. Martin said there are 7.46% of the student population absent due to either testing positive or being quarantined.
Martin showed a comparison with several other districts in northwest Arkansas, three of which, in addition to Pea Ridge do not have a mask mandate. Those schools, and the percentage of absent students as of Aug. 31, were Siloam Springs, 3.71%; Gravette, 3.84%; and Greenland, 16.34%. He said schools with mask mandates show fewer students absent. They were Farmington, 1.01%; Prairie Grove, 5.43%; Bentonville, 1.32%; and Fayetteville, 0.36%.
Neil said persons from the public would be allowed to speak, but only for five minutes total.
Three persons spoke in favor of the mask mandate. There were slightly more than 26 people present opposed to the mask mandate, six spoke before the time ran out, but several spoke during the board's contemplation of the recommendation from Martin to require masks. Martin asked for the mandate to be put in place until Sept. 13, the date of the next School Board meeting, at which time data would be considered to determine whether the mask mandate had helped slow the numbers of students out of school.
He said contact tracing identified three specific areas where students are being exposed to covid -- in the classroom, on a school bus and in the cafeteria. He said masks will not be required where social distancing of six feet or more is possible, during recess, while eating or drinking, and possibly in physical education if social distancing is possible.
Martin said the school district's funding is based on last year's student population count of 2,281 from Oct. 1, 2020, and the decision to mandate masks Wednesday was not connected to student funding.
"I can assure you, this is a meeting I do not want to have," Martin said, adding that he had been a member of this community for more than 24 years. He said the numbers of students absent either from positive covid cases or from quarantine was unacceptable.
"We have 33 students positive -- that's 1.4% of our kids," Martin said. He said there are three ways to avoid quarantine if in close contact, according to the mandate to the district from the Department of Health. They are to be outside the "six-feet halo," to both persons wearing a mask and to be at least 14 days out from receiving a vaccination.
Board member Mindy Cawthon was absent.
Board member Jeff Neil made the motion to approve Martin's recommendation. Board member Jenny Wood, after discussion, seconded the motion. Neil, Wood and Sandy Button voted in favor of the mask mandate, though each spoke to the difficulty of the decision. Board member John Dye voted against the mandate and received applause from persons in the room.