By Joel Phelps
Starting Wednesday, Oct. 20, students and teachers at Arkadelphia Public Schools will no longer be required to wear a face mask while on school property.
The Arkadelphia Board of Education voted 5-1 Tuesday during its regular meeting to make face coverings optional. The decision comes on the heels of falling Covid-19 numbers in the school district and across the state.
Superintendent Karla Neathery, whose administration made the recommendation and will monitor the numbers, retains the authority to make masks mandatory.
There are currently three active cases in the school district, with eight in quarantine.
In a 20-minute discussion on the topic, Neathery said the district surveyed its Ready for Learning committee, which is comprised of faculty and staff. Of those surveyed, 66.7 percent said they wanted the masks to be optional, while 28.6 percent wanted to maintain the mask requirement; the remaining 4.7 percent wanted to rely on district medical staff to lead the district in its policy on masks.
Neathery said a third piece that determined her suggestion was the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement’s website, which maps Covid numbers throughout the state. The color scale on the map and trend table references the rates of new known infections for a 14-day period per 10,000 residents. The area that includes the Arkadelphia School District has had 10-19 infections based on that map. With 56 cases in September, that same area was mapped in red.
Ouachita Baptist University has recently made masks optional for its students and faculty. Board member Jeff Root, a professor there, said, “It’s been great to see the faces of some of my students the past six days, and I can’t help but think test scores and just trying to get back to normal are related. So I’m hopeful this goes well.”
School nurse Beth Hasley informed the board that the state released new guidelines that defines a contact, reducing the distance of Covid-positive students who’ve come in contact with other students from 6 feet to 3 feet. This measure, she said, will help keep more students in school. Hasley also predicted the local Covid numbers to drop in the next week.
Board member Gina White called it an “understanding problem” of “how 70,000 people can go to a football game and be sitting on top of each other, and you can go to a restaurant and eat close together, but then when we get to school it’s some kind of different standard.” White said she has talked to parents, teachers and coaches about the issue, and that her biggest fear in lifting the mask mandate was seniors missing out on extracurricular activities because of quarantine. Then again, White said, it should be up to the parent to decide. “If a parent is worried about their child not being safe at school, that parent can tell their child to wear a mask.”
Board president Casey Motl pointed out three “objectively true” facts. First, he said, the state was “well ahead of the Delta variant curve, and so consequently the active cases of Delta have fallen precipitously ahead of much of the nation.” Second, “these kids are not wearing these masks when they’re outside of teacher or principal supervision, and yet despite that fact … we’re still seeing the numbers we have, which are statistically insignificant at this point.” Finally, he said the district’s primary concern is the safety and well-being of students and staff. “So in light of that, would it be worthwhile for us to consider a threshold of positivity akin to what we paid attention to last year such that if we witness a spike in active cases among either our employees or among our students that we empower the superintendent to affect the change in mask policy? And, if so, where should that threshold be?”
White, referring to the ACHI map, said Neathery could make an automatic decision based on that data. Other school districts in the state are doing the very same. Perritt principal Heather Williams, whose husband teaches at Bryant School District, said officials there rely on that map and make their decision on a weekly basis. If Saline County is orange, masks are mandatory the next week; if it’s green, they’re optional, and school officials broadcast their information to students and parents via social media and text alerts, Williams informed the board.
Again referencing the map, White added: “A few months ago these numbers were way different. I know the principals did great things to facilitate those numbers going down, and we’re not going to change those things if we have a mask or don’t have a mask.”
Board member Blake Bell opined, saying, “We as a board don’t have the luxury of coming up with a medical opinion. We have to listen to our medical people. When the medical people in September said [to] put the mask on, that’s what we did. And now the medical people are saying it’s OK to take them off. If the medical people say to put them back on we’ll put ‘em back on. We listen to medical folks.”
Board member Ida Tramble, who cast the only “nay” vote, asked Neathery if the 66 percent who wanted the masks to be optional were parents of elementary school students. “I’m interested in knowing what elementary parents and faculty and staff are thinking,” she said. Neathery said some in the survey pool doubled as teacher and parent, but only coincidentally, as the survey was targeted at the Ready for Learning committee.