"I want as many people as possible to pull their kids out of this school," one parent said as she was leaving the room at the end of an emotionally-charged special School Board meeting.
Citing data reflecting numbers of students and staff testing positive for covid-19 and for those quarantined as a result of close contact, school superintendent Keith Martin presented his case to the School Board in the special meeting Wednesday, Sept. 1, requesting a mask mandate until the next regularly scheduled School Board meeting on Monday, Sept. 13.
Martin asked the board to require students to wear face coverings/masks while in the classroom or in an indoor setting during the school day where students are closer than six feet for 15 minutes or longer, in the cafeteria (while not eating) and using district-provided transportation until the regularly scheduled board meeting on Sept. 13, at which time the Ready for Learning Plan will be reevaluated.
Martin said data collected revealed that close contact is happening in classrooms, the cafeteria and school buses. He said that data does not show any contamination happening during hallway transitions to classes.
In a letter to school employees dated Sept. 1, Martin said more than 10% of students are out of school due to positive cases and close contacts. He said he believes that number can be "drastically reduced" by the use of masks.
Martin said his purpose is to serve the community and lead Pea Ridge schools; to ensure teaching and learning are at the heart of what we do and to ensure each student grows. He said that for that to happen, the students must be on campus and he believes that students wearing masks increases the opportunity for that to take place.
Several persons spoke in opposition to the mask mandate, most stating that "masks do not work" and that they decrease the child's ability to fight disease by weakening their immune systems.
At the request of School Board member Jenny Wood, Martin explained that where there is not room to maintain social distancing of 6 feet apart, he recommended the use of face masks or face coverings. He said data from close contact tracing does not reveal problems from recess.
"I want to give them the opportunity to take their masks off as much as possible," Martin said. "I was so excited to see our numbers low and them be able to take masks off. Our numbers aren't low anymore."
"That 11% is high," Martin said, adding that "we're (the school) the best thing they've got -- the best two meals they get in a day. I believe it's my responsibility to be sure they stay in school."
"It's about keeping our kids in here and making sure we can provide an appropriate education," he said.
Veronica Guzzman said she has two children in the schools. She said she supports a mask mandate. "We need to do whatever we can to protect them."
Three persons spoke in favor of the mask mandate.
Anthony Cooper said he has two girls who have auto-immune disease and he is "very aware, concerned about keeping my kids healthy." He asked whether the rules change if a person is vaccinated.
Martin said rules are different for persons who are vaccinated. "If we both have on masks, and have no symptoms, they do not have to go home."
He said children spend two-thirds of their day outside of school.
"For me, and for a lot of parents, let parents have the ability to decide for their own kids," he said.
Jacqueline Drury said her child was constantly sick with headaches from wearing the mask last year and that when they switched to virtual schooling, her child was not struggling with headaches. She said wearing the mask "weakened her otherwise healthy immune system."
Earl Wilson said: "I do not believe in mask mandates whatever... I do not agree masks work ... the only mask that does work is the N95, which most people don't wear.
"I don't believe government has the authority to tell kids what to wear. This is America, which I fought for, a lot of other people fought for to the freedom to choose," he concluded.
Chelsea Bitner, wearing scrubs, said her child attends school in Rogers, but she has family in this district. She said as a medical professional, she wears a mask every day and still contracted covid.
"It absolutely infuriates me that my child has to wear a mask to school. I had that choice taken away from me in Rogers. Don't do this to your parents, don't cut that line of trust," she said. When asked later, Bitner said she is a pharmacy tech.
Another parent said her daughter had to go to therapy because she was so traumatized by lack of socialization from not being in school.
Board president Jeff Neil said: "I think everybody here is loathe to try and to tell any parent how to parent their kid; that's not what we want to do. We don't want to have children in masks, but we were all elected to put the children of this town first. As of today, 176 kids that are quarantined that would not be quarantined."
Neil said the school district doesn't make the rules, but follows the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control.
"We have no choice in that matter," Neil said. "When a kid comes in close contact, we are forced to quarantine them. For some of those kids, that's not a big deal. For some of those kids, it is a big deal. For some, we are the only two square meals they get, we are a very positive impact in their life."
School Board member Sandy Button said: "This is very, very hard, we've listened ... it's probably going to be one of the hardest things ... and we are not trying to parent these children. We're trying to keep them in school, the best school district in the state of Arkansas.
"The quarantine thing is the thing," she said, recognizing that the students who are quarantined haven't done something wrong, but were identified as a close contact. "We don't want to send them home. I hate these masks. I can not even image trying to keep a child in one, but i want to try to keep these kids in school. We've been told try for two weeks and see what happens.
"We put Mr. Martin in this position and we have all the faith in the world in him. We are not trying to take away any privileges and I mean that with all my heart," Button said.
Board member Jenny Wood said: "I have to deal with masks all day long and that's good and it's bad, i'm mandated to do it.
"At beginning of year, the whole board was in agreement, it was it a popular stance ... but for some of y'all it wasn't popular at all," she said referring to the board's decision to not require masks. She recalled that several years ago when there was a flu outbreak, school officials shut down a building for an extra day to clean thoroughly and try to squelch the disease.
Board member John Dye, who voted against the mask mandate, said: "How better to define a no win situation? Can we all agree it's the worst time.
"There's someone, groups of someones, who will not be OK no matter which way we decide. Most of it is out of our control," he said.
Dye said serving on the school board, which is not a paid position, is for the "betterment of the kids ... making sure they have a good, quality environment."
"This is not popular, not something any of us want to do. It's been a weight on me all day," Dye said, noting that even if he doesn't agree with the recommendation or other board members, he will always support the school administration.
"We can all agree on one thing, we are here for our kids. We're proud to be Blackhawks. We will find ways to support each other," he said.
Martin said there are accommodations made for students with a documented medical condition or learning disability in which wearing a mask is not appropriate.
Neil, saying "I will bite the bullet and make the motion," made the motion to approve Martin's recommendation. After discussion, Wood seconded the motion. Button, Wood and Neil voted in favor of the motion. Dye voted against it. Many people in the room applauded Dye's action.
Martin, who said he is an elementary teacher at heart, said children will not have to wear masks at recess.
"In an outside environment ... kids are running around. I don't want the masks to be restrictive," he said. "I realize kids need breaks. We're trying to be as accommodating as we can and also trying to get the numbers down to a manageable spot."
Wood said: "We're trying to do the best for our students."