The Wilson County Board of Education voted to reject a mask mandate at a meeting on Thursday evening. The district is one of the many trying to figure out how to reopen safely.
There have been mixed feelings on mandating masks. In a meeting that stretched for four hours, the district said parents were equally divided on the issue, but that nearly all its teachers were favorable toward the idea.
“I’ve received hundreds of emails from parents … Statistically, they’re fairly split between people who want masks and people who don’t want masks.” says Chad Karl, a school board member. “I’ve received a lot of feedback from teachers and a lot of students. The teachers are almost 100% pro-masks.”
Karl says most educators feel a duty to teach and will show up to work no matter what the circumstances are, but that they still have health concerns.
“We see all the time that people say they want to support the teachers,” says Karl. “Right now the best way to support your teacher is to wear a mask. Talk to you child and have your child wear a mask.”
Despite these concerns — and pleas from Mt. Juliet Teens for Change, a student group whose petition for a mask mandate in part sparked the special called board meeting — the mandate motion failed 4-2. There was one abstention.
One parent who opposed the mandate told WPLN News that teachers who had health concerns could choose to stay home. The district is offering a choice between virtual and in-person classes.
Other parents say requiring kids to wear masks is impractical and took issue with the idea of students wearing masks all day. They also say their children aren’t comfortable wearing masks — and that mandating them would impact their ability to learn.
Jennifer Pearson, a parent at Carroll Oakland Elementary in Lebanon, offered a different opinion. She says if masks need to be worn in school buildings, then it probably isn’t safe to resume in–person classes in the first place.
“I know the board members are working hard to make everyone happy. No one is going to make everyone happy,” says Pearson. “I just think that it should be held off for a while because this virus isn’t going anywhere.”
School board concerns
While the majority of board members wore masks during yesterday’s board meeting, there was a general concern as to whether the board had the authority to enforce a mask mandate.
Another concern was that parents would sue the district. Some members suggested adopting a policy to “strongly recommend,” but not require masks in schools.
Under the failed mandate, students would have been exempt from wearing masks in classrooms. Facial coverings would have been required in high traffic areas — like school buses, hallways, and other areas where social distancing wasn’t feasible. Children under 12, students in grades 6 and under, individuals with health conditions preventing them from wearing a mask or who had mask phobias, would have also been exempt.
For some parents, the board’s decision to reject the mandate put them in an unfavorable situation.
“To hear people say, ‘Well you’re taking away my rights and my freedom not to have to wear a mask.’ No we’re not. We’re actually giving you a virtual opportunity,” says Chris Meisner, a parent of students in Wilson County elementary, middle and high schools.
Meisner, whose oldest daughter is part of Mt. Juliet Teens for Change, says he’s enrolling his children in virtual school because of the vote to reject the mandate. He’s also worried about the learning impact it’ll have on his 10th grader.
“My concern is they are not offering any AP or honors classes at all virtually,” says Meisner. “And because she’s a sophomore, she’s not eligible for dual enrollment in the colleges.”
The mayor of Wilson County initially expressed support for a mask requirement after reissuing a state of emergency in late June. But he has pivoted to strongly encouraging face coverings instead, after local governments were given the authority to mandate them in an executive order by the governor.
Wilson County Schools says it is the district’s “expectation that students and staff will wear face coverings while in the school building.”
“I think it’s evident that all the board members are in favor of wearing masks,” says Larry Tomlinson, chairman of the school board. “But I just don’t think we can go along with the word ‘required.’ ”
Tomlinson says the decision wasn’t easy, but wants to make it clear to students and parents that school leaders are committed to keeping them safe.