The Preston County Board of Education’s unanimous vote to not require students to wear masks when they start the 2021-2022 school year on Wednesday was met with applause.
“I’m happy,” said Whitney Johnston, mother of two children that go to school in Preston County after the board decided to “highly recommend” masks be worn at its indoor facilities. The BOE will also purchase three-sided sneeze guards for every desk.
Before the meeting, Johnston said she would have likely withdrawn her kids from school and homeschool them if the board voted to keep a mask mandate.
Before voting, board members heard from Dr. Frederick Conley, health officer for Preston County, and four people who were against masking. About 30 people protesting against a mask mandate attended the meeting.
Conley recommended masking up, at least until the upcoming Delta variant peak is over. He said the Delta variant is much more easily transmittable than regular COVID, with up to 1,000 times more particles found in a patient’s nostril compared to the normal version of the disease.
“All I can do is give you the best advice from what I’m learning from my sources, which I’ll tell you you’ll notice I didn’t mention CDC in anything. But I do mention the American Academy of Pediatrics,” Conley said. “I mean, these are the pediatricians across the world that are involved in this and I checked with them, their representatives, I checked with local docs who are pediatricians and physicians. And everyone I talked to is recommending at this point to be exactly what I’m telling you. The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends that we wear masks. … It’s not perfect, but it’s the best I have to offer.”
The last 18 months have been a trying time and now a new school year is here, said Craig Schmidle, dean of students at South Preston School and father of two children who go to Preston schools.
Unfortunately, many of them will be playing catch-up academically.
“Data released from the West Virginia Department of Education indicates that for last school year 72% of students in West Virginia are below proficiency in math, 60% are below proficiency in reading and 72% of students are below proficiency in science,” Schmidle said. “These are not good statistics.”
Forcing students to wear masks would be detrimental to their education because their ability to concentrate is dramatically reduced by masks, Schmidle said. He also pointed to a study of COVID transmission in classrooms which showed masks did not make a statistically significant benefit.
County Commissioner Samantha Stone, also a school bus driver, said her son is one of those that got left behind. For the first time, he didn’t make straight A’s.
“When I say the school says you have to wear a mask just put it on and get through it. They’re putting it on and they’re getting through it,” Stone said. “But at what cost? … Let’s put this to bed and just move on. Our kids can’t suffer anymore. Their grades can’t suffer anymore.”
BOE President Jack Keim said conflicting answers and medical studies are part of the problem. It’s hard to make sense of it all and the board, which isn’t made up of medical doctors, is stuck in the middle.
Board member Pam Feathers said, “Let me go on record by saying this should not be the decision of this board. So there you have it. I’m not a doctor. I’m an M period O period M period. I don’t have a degree.So this should not be my decision.”
No matter what the board decided to do, half the county was going to be unhappy, Keim said.
“I cannot understand why it’s our decision,” he said.
After the meeting, Keim told The Dominion Post that there are multiple levels above the BOE that could override their decision including the county commission, county health department, state board of education, or Gov. Jim Justice.
During the meeting, Keim pointed out that last February they made COVID decisions on a Monday and on Tuesday after Justice’s conference had to redo their plans.
BOE member Bruce Huggins said the board’s decision was about the best middle ground it could find while respecting both sides, and hopefully it protects the students.
“I just hope that we don’t lose a child. If we lose a child, every one of us in this room had better look in the mirror. Because that’s how, that’s what scares me. The adults have a choice. They chose to not. Our kids are going with their parents. I get that and I respect that. That’s why you’re parents. I don’t have a medical degree. But I know in my heart if we lose a child, I don’t know how I would look in my mirror and look at myself.”