The Arkansas City school board on Monday voted 6-1 to keep a mask requirement in place over the objections of a small group of parents and an online petition against the mask mandate that began Sept. 1.

Board member Tyler Yung opposed the decision.

The board also approved the adoption of a layered approach recommended by the CDC and state health officials that includes physical distancing, hygiene, ventilation, masks, testing and possible exclusions from school.

The plan calls for daily testing of students exposed to the virus so that they can avoid quarantine and keeping learning in school, if they test negative.

School nurse Lori Schwartz said that the district health team is not adequately staffed to handle that much testing. Administering COVID testing and contact tracing with parents is time consuming. She said more help was desperately needed.

“Why haven’t we looked at that before now?” board member Lori Barnes asked. “The last thing I want to do is lose these women who have busted their butts for us and our kids, just because they are frustrated that we haven’t taken the steps we should have.”

Business Director Will Pfannenstiel said that the district has added one new nursing position and another is expected to join the staff soon. He said the district is currently looking for applicants, and that newly-hired Student Assistant Team employees (SAT) are being asked to serve as temporary health aides.

“I would like to see us get more people hired, and go to that layered effect where once we get below a certain threshold of positivity in the district, the masks will be an option,” board member Mike Munson said.

That threshold will apply to schools individually. Once the positivity rate for a certain facility has dropped below a set standard, the mask requirement would be dropped. 

Ballard said that the district health team will bring back a threshold model for the board to consider at the next regular meeting.

Ballard said that the decision to continue masking was intended to keep students safe and in class. He said that the recently implemented mask requirement has significantly reduced the number of students missing school due to “close contact” quarantine.

“We know our staff, students, and families have a variety of opinions related to wearing masks,” he said. “We respect the mixed emotions you may have about this decision.”

Ballard said the currently, 60.5 percent of the teaching staff has been vaccinated. He said the recommendation is for 75 percent.

“So, we’re not quite there yet,” he said.

Schwartz fully supports the district’s masking decision.

“I stress that the best way to meet the needs of our students academically, physically and psychosocially, is to continue masking within the school setting,” she said.  

Schwartz said that the main objective of masking is to provide an uninterrupted education that also allows the students to participate in extracurricular activities. The only way to accomplish that goal, she said, is to follow the CDC guidelines.

But some parents attending the meeting took exception to those guidelines.  

Jennifer Aldridge said she has a child who is hearing impaired and also has a speech problem. Requiring him and his teacher to wear masks is working against his individual education plan.

“You guys are preventing him from being educated properly,” she said.

Aldridge also challenged the effectiveness of the masks and said a study of 90,000 students in Georgia across 160 districts found that masks did not reduce infections.

The CDC website sites multiple studies it says show that a layered prevention strategy that includes masking limits disease transmission. 

Aldridge isn’t convinced.

“Trusting the CDC at this point is like trusting a serial killer to watch your kids,” she told the board.

Board member Evelyn Shoup said she agrees that the district needs to consider the students with special needs and make provisions for them. She thinks teachers are doing the best that they can but meeting those students needs should be included in any plan the district puts into place.

“We’re not doctors, we aren’t nurses,” she said. “But to have the opinion that we need to continue masks for a while longer comes from wanting to keep our kids healthy and safe and in school.”

Barnes agreed and said that the district needs to be prepared as if it were going to war and be ready for anything.

“I think we’ve fallen short in some places,” she said. “It’s not anyone’s fault, but I think we know what we have to do to prepare better for war next time.”

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