PRAIRIE GROVE -- The vote was not unanimous, but Prairie Grove School Board last week decided to require all students and staff to wear masks, with the understanding the mask mandate will be revisited at each board meeting.
In a special meeting Aug. 9, the board voted 4-2 in favor of a mask mandate for indoors and while in school vehicles or buses, effective immediately. The board will look at covid data and the mandate each month.
Board President Casie Ruland and board members J.C. Dobbs, Whitney Bryant and Shawn Shrum voted for a mask mandate. Board members Bart Orr and Matt Hargis voted against it.
The mandate applies to students in kindergarten-12th grade. They will be required to wear masks while attending school or during school functions that are inside of a school building or facility. Masks must cover the nose and mouth of a student or employee.
Students will be able to remove masks to eat and drink, when appropriate social distancing measures are in place and on a case-by-case basis for special instructional purposes. Exemptions will be allowed due to special behavior or individual needs as approved by administration.
For employees, masks are required inside school buildings. Exemptions are allowed for eating and drinking, with social distancing measures in place and as approved by the superintendent for documented medical reasons.
All board members were in agreement that they did not like masks and preferred not to require masks.
However, board President J.C. Dobbs noted it's the board's responsibility to look after students and not be concerned about "the popular vote."
Dobbs added, "I'm not a mask person and I don't like them. I wish there was more data on them."
But he said he would like to see masks for kindergarten-12th grade, noting he does not believe there are a lot of vaccinated students at this point.
Presently, children, ages 12 and older, are eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine.
Superintendent Reba Holmes provided board members with emails from parents about a mask mandate.
Of those emails, 16 were in favor of a mask mandate and 13 opposed a mask mandate. The Enterprise-Leader has chosen not to use the names of parents and staff who sent in emails to protect the identity of their children.
One parent asked the board to approve a mask mandate, at least for a few months until the Delta variant is under control.
"This is how we protect our kiddos and staff from this horrible disease. Particularly the kids that are not old enough for the vaccine yet," the mother wrote. "Mine are included in that group. Why not do everything we can to at least try to prevent the spread and protect all of our Prairie Grove kids?"
Another parent also supported a mask mandate and pointed to recommendations by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the CDC and the Arkansas Department of Education that everyone wear masks, regardless of vaccinated status.
"Every expert and governing organization that is in a place to pass guidance for schools has recommended masks," he said. "This decision, while contentious, should be easy. Listen to the appropriate experts."
Another parent said she understands people want to get back to normal and not have to wear masks and that it is frustrating to be faced with wearing masks again at school.
However, she noted Arkansas is seeing new cases and hospitalizations on par with January, a peak month for the covid pandemic, and one school district in the state already has hundreds of teachers and students in quarantine.
"I fear Prairie Grove schools will be in a similar situation if we return to school without a mask mandate, and this isn't even the worst possible outcome."
She asked the school board to make the "hard decision" to reinstate a mask mandate for Prairie Grove schools.
Emails from people opposed to a mask mandate included parents and several Prairie Grove staff members.
"I'm writing to implore, beseech, enjoin and urge you to vote against forcing kids and staff to wear masks at Prairie Grove schools," wrote one parent and the husband of a Prairie Grove teacher. "I'm all for giving parents the choice. I understand this is a bizarre and difficult time. America is a land of freedom, and I believe freedom must overcome even in the weirdest of times."
A retired Prairie Grove staff member said she believes parents should have the right to determine if their child wears a mask or not.
"We are doing more mental health damage to these children by forcing them to wear a mask with no proof the mask even prevents the virus," she said in her email to school administrators. "We are doing more lifelong mental health damage to the children than we can ever fix! This virus, just like the flu, is never going away!"
Another parent said his son would not attend school in person if he has to wear a mask. He said parents should be able to make the decision they feel is best for their own children.
Danielle Randolph, the district's head nurse who also is serving as the school's covid point of contact, recommended a mask mandate.
Randolph, who attended the board meeting, said she was coming at her recommendation from a different perspective, not from a political or educational standpoint, but from a health standpoint.
"It's a health issue," Randolph told board members. "That's what it boils down to."
She said sickness was "way less" for all types of illnesses last year when students were wearing masks. This included flu and stomach bugs, she said.
Randolph said almost all medical organizations are recommending masks for everyone, whether a person is vaccinated or not, including the Arkansas Department of Health, CDC and the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement.
Randolph admitted she is more apprehensive this year than last year because research shows the Delta variant is more contagious and seems to affect children.
Randolph said schools will not be able to socially distance this year because almost all students will be back for in-person classes.
"There's no possible way we can distance six feet," she said.
According to guidance from the health department, students and staff who are fully vaccinated will not have to quarantine unless they have symptoms, Randolph said. It's recommended that a person who is fully vaccinated and exposed to covid-19 get a test about five days after exposure.
If an unvaccinated person is exposed to covid-19 at school, that person does not have to quarantine as long as both are wearing masks consistently and correctly, Randolph said.
"It has to be both parties," she added.
Prairie Grove already has had students in quarantine. The district had nine positive cases in July with about 52 in quarantine. Last week, there were three positive cases and some in quarantine, Randolph said.
"I'm sorry," she told board members. "You should not have to make this decision. It should be the ADH or the Arkansas Department of Education."
Board members asked if she saw more cases with mental health issues last year and Randolph said she did not.
Board member Whitney Bryant said she was open to a temporary mask mandate but wanted the board to revisit it.
Board member Matt Hargis said he did not understand why the school should have a mask mandate if the CDC was strongly recommending that everyone wear a mask.
"If you want to wear one, you wear it," Hargis said.
Board member Shawn Shrum noted that he didn't like masks either, "but like J.C. said, kids first."
Shrum said he did not want Prairie Grove to be forced to pivot to virtual classes because of cases and quarantines.
"I think virtual hurts them worse than a mask," Shrum said.
Board members asked about options for virtual school, and Assistant Superintendent Pete Joenks responded that the school is receiving more inquiries about changing to a virtual environment.
Last year, virtual school was open to everyone. This year, Joenks said, there are some "brakes" on it because of the failure rate last year. Parents who want their child to change to virtual will have to talk with the building principal.
Bart Orr, board member, said he personally believes masks should be optional.
"We can't mandate everything," Orr said.
Dobbs replied, "I get where you're coming from and I totally agree." However, he added that if the school can help even one person, it should.
"I think we owe it to the kids and staff to give them that protection," Dobbs said.
Prairie Grove Covid-19 Cases*
Covid cases, 9
Covid cases, 2
*On Aug. 16