Two of the eight Bulloch County Board of Education members informally called for a mask mandate during last week’s meeting, and a third, who is a public health college dean, again declared that “masks help” to slow the spread of COVID-19.
But several of the others expressed opposition to requiring face masks for students, teachers and staff members. One board member, an instructor of teachers, told of difficulties keeping young children masked, and both she and the public health dean raised concerns that masks can block visual cues some students need to understand speech and be understood. As reported previously, a majority of the 26 citizens who spoke during “public participation,” Thursday night delivered statements in favor of a mask mandate or other changes, but board members in the end offered no motion.
“My guess is that we all have different opinions about what we should do as a district or as a community, and there’s probably nothing that I can say to convince you, probably nothing you can say to convince me,” District 3 board member Stuart Tedders, Ph.D., said during the member comments time, early in the meeting. “But I do know one thing, and that is that all of us, wherever our opinion lies, all of us are trying to do the best that we can do to protect our families.”
Tedders, dean of the Jiann-Ping Hsu College of Public Health at Georgia Southern University, had made a statement about the COVID-19 resurgence during the board’s previous meeting, Aug. 12. At that time he cited statistics, referred to the resurgence as largely “an epidemic of the unvaccinated” and urged everyone eligible for a vaccination to get it. He also said he wished “people would choose to wear masks even if they’re vaccinated.”
That day, Superintendent Charles Wilson had raised the Bulloch County Schools’ COVID-19 precautions from the “No to Moderately High Spread” bracket to “High Spread.” But the added precautions only “more strongly” encouraged masks and did not include a mandate.
Since the board cancelled its Aug. 26 work session, Thursday night’s meeting was the first in four weeks. “Mask Discussion” appeared in the “Superintendent’s Report” agenda section, after the more than hour-long public participation.
“I am of the opinion that masks are helpful,” Tedders said. “I agree with (a speaker during the public comments) that masks don’t stop the spread, but they certainly slow the spread. If you look at the peer-reviewed literature, there are considerable studies that indicate that they are ineffective, but there are studies that indicate that they are, and a lot of it in science has to do with how you define ‘effective.’”
So scholars look for trends in multiple studies, and he said the trend is toward masks being effective.
“So masks do help, I think that they really do, but I do have questions,” Tedders said.
One of his questions was how instruction would be affected by students refusing to wear masks or wearing them improperly. A teacher might have to interrupt a lesson to correct students’ mask wearing, he suggested.
“I also know that, particularly among very young children and special-needs children, they rely on facial expressions in order to cue in to whatever’s being taught, and if the teacher is wearing a mask, how does that impact the ability of the teacher to connect with the student?” Tedders said.
Martin in favor
Glennera Martin, of District 5, spoke for a mask mandate.
“You say how does it impact instruction? It actually will protect the teacher as well as the students, if that’s what you’re asking,” Martin said. “It may not answer your question, but that’s how I feel.”
A retired educator herself, she noted that students have become ill with COVID-19 and others have missed school while on precautionary quarantines. Teachers and school support personnel, she mentioned, are among those who have died of COVID-19 in Bulloch County.
Martin noted that several surrounding school districts and some across the state have mask mandates.
“So if that’s happening all around us, why can’t we at least give it a try? …” Martin asked. “All of these systems are requiring them to wear a mask. Why are we going to be so different?”
But District 4 member April Newkirk, a clinical instructor of elementary school teachers in Georgia Southern’s College of Education, voiced a different opinion.
“I don’t expect to change your mind. I do expect a lot of people to be angry with what I’m about to say. “I cannot support a mask mandate. …,” Newkirk said, briefly drowned out by applause from some in the audience, while others held up red cards signaling disapproval. “I see it and it’s OK,” she said. “It’s OK for us to disagree.”
She had recently visited schools to conduct face-to-face assessments of 134 kindergarten children on what letters and sounds they knew.
“We spent more time looking for masks than we did anything else,” Newkirk said. “One little girl’s mask was beside the toilet, and she was adamant about wearing it, and I said, ‘Sugar Dumpling, no, please, let’s go get us one from the front office.’”
Children could be trained to wear masks, “but at what cost?” she asked.
“I think it’s wrong; I think it’s abuse to expect a child to wear a mask for eight hours,” Newkirk said, drawing more applause and red cards.
“Dr. Tedders, you asked about instruction,” she added a little later. “The children I tested with their masks on, I could not tell what letters or sounds they were telling me. Many times I asked them if they could take their masks off if they felt comfortable doing that, and I would distance myself from them out of respect for what their parents had asked them to do.”
District 8 member Maurice Hill, a funeral home owner and minister, was the second board member to request a mask mandate. He began with a question to board Chair Mike Sparks, the District 2 member.
“I guess my question, Mr. Chairman, is why did we even put it on the agenda for a mask discussion if we were not going to consider trying to come up with a plan of action? Did we put this on the agenda to pacify certain constituents?”
Martin, however, noted that she had asked that the issue be placed on the agenda, and Sparks confirmed this.
“It is my preference that we do require our kids to wear masks,” Hill said. “That’s my preference, that kids socially distance, number one, and wear a mask.”
Sparks and others
Sparks, also a retired teacher and coach, said that he had directed Wilson to place the topic on the agenda where he did. But Sparks added that, regardless of where the topic was listed, if a board member wanted to make a motion, the members could vote on it “and go from there.”
“I’ve had several close friends from high school, two of them I graduated with, one of them was one of the best friends I’ve had, to die from COVID,” he said. “I know it’s serious, and I’m 70 years old. …”
One of his friends who died from COVID-19 “was unvaccinated and did not wear a mask” but another “was religiously wearing a mask” and “was vaccinated,” Sparks said. Of four of his family members who have had it, including two currently ill, three wore masks and some barely left the house, he said.
“I don’t know that masks work. …,” Sparks said, but then added, “I’m not anti-mask. I wear a mask.”
District 7 member Heather Mims said she did not support a mandate, instead favoring “parent choice.”
Martin asked if the question could be put to a vote of parents. But Wilson, calling masking “an incredibly divisive issue,” said such a vote could further the divisions.
In contrast to Thursday’s trend in public comments, he also said he had heard feedback over the past three weeks from “parents, from teachers in particular and other employees across this district saying, ‘Please do not require a mask mandate, this will be disruptive, this will disrupt our time to teach students.’”