Both Ashley County school districts began classes for the 2021-2022 school year this week. One significant difference between them? Crossett’s schools have a mask mandate in place, while Hamburg’s schools do not.

Crossett School District 

The Crossett School District’s Board of Education took up the matter of a mask mandate in a special-called meeting on Aug. 12. Their vote passed 4-1, with board member Katie Jordan being the single dissenting vote.

In addressing his board and recommending the mandate, Superintendent Gary Williams emphasized that the masks will help keep required quarantines down. Under the state health department’s guidance, if a COVID-positive student or staff member spends an aggregate of 15 minutes around another person during the day, both will have to go into quarantine if neither or only one of those is masked.

The same guidelines allow, however, that only the positive person has to go into quarantine if both of them are wearing masks.

“I understand that there are a lot of individuals in our community who oppose these measures…But I am looking at this not only from the health side, but from the health of their education,” Williams said.

“These (masks) are the best weapons we have to fight this.

“We want to keep them safe and in the classroom to give us time to come up with alternatives.”

Before she cast her vote, Jordan said she received a number of calls from people in her district and part of her obligation was to vote in a way that represented those people. She said she struggled with the idea of the district possibly crossing the line of deciding something that parents should decide.

“I have been contacted by so many parents asking me to express that they want to make this decision for their child,” she said.

One of the members who voted for the mandate, Keith Carter, said he does not know if masks make a difference in the fight against COVID.

“But I would rather be cautious than to throw it wide open and then find out we are wrong,” he said.

“If all we are doing is being cautious and it keeps our kids in class, then they aren’t going home and falling off the map. I am for that, because some of them will not catch up.”

Board member Debra Barnes said she looked into available information about current COVID infections and had found instances of infants, toddlers and young children being infected. For that reason, she said, she supported a full mandate for the CSD.

“If these masks will protect our kids, I think we need it, and I think it should be for K-12,” Barnes said.

Board member Eddie Goodson ultimately voted for the mandate, but when discussing it he said that he does not want students wearing a mask a day longer than they have to, to which Williams replied, “Nor do I.”

Board President Keith Medders said the entire COVID situation is fluid and changing, and it seems like every day the public receives new information. He also said that he believes wearing masks is an individual choice, “But I feel like we have been elected to protect children who might not be able to make that choice.”

While the board voted to set the mandate for all students and staff in the district, they also set a meeting for Aug. 24 to look at the district’s data and how things may have changed after a week of school.

Protests in Crossett

A small group of protestors showed up at the CSD’s central administration office Monday, standing on the Main Street side of the building with signs and peacefully demonstrating against the mandate. The timing of the protest coincided with the first day of school.

Those present said they did not think it was fair to children to have to wear masks, and that they wanted parents to have a choice about the matter.

Williams went outside to speak with the protestors, and said that over the course of their conversation they asked him for several pieces of information that he went back into the main office to verify before going back out to relay it to them. Before he left the central office to go to a meeting in a different building, Williams asked the protestors if there was anything else they wanted to know.

Williams said Tuesday that the protestors were civil and that over the course of their discussions, even if neither side became convinced of what the other wanted, those involved seemed to hear what the other side was saying.

“I listened to them and they listened to me, and it was a good exchange,” Williams said. “I think if we could replicate that across this country, it would make a difference.”

Crossett community response

Responses to the mandate have been mixed across the community. In an unofficial online poll of Ashley News Observer readers, those who were in favor of the mandate tended to emphasize the health and community safety aspects of the mandate, while those who are opposed to it were likely to emphasize personal and parental choice.

Brittney Nicole Trigleth was against the mandate, saying, “The parents know what’s right for their own kids. Not the school district.”

That was a sentiment that Alyssa Pittillo echoed when she wrote, “Let the parents be parents and let them choose if they want their children to wear a mask in school....this is America, not a third world country!

Sharon Riva voiced her support for the measure. “I want to do everything to protect my grandkids,” she said.

Crossett parent Michelle Lott likewise said she wanted the mandate in place.“I have an autoimmune (disorder) and I believe the masks protect as long as everyone else is doing their part in prevention,” she said.

But even though many people have strong opinions about the mandates, some admitted they straddle the line. Hamburg grandparent Lynn Johnson said she was neither for the mandate or against it, but asked that — if mask use is practiced, why couldn’t those who are willing to wear masks visit their students in the schools?

“I’m just a nana with grandchildren in school,” Johnson wrote. I’m not for it or against it. I want to know why parents can’t come in the schools with their children. I’ve seen all summer people wearing masks and COVID is still here, so why can’t the parents come in the school with a mask?”

Hamburg School District

The Hamburg School District’s Board of Education voted twice in as many weeks not to place a mask mandate on the district’s schools.

The first vote, which was cast at the district’s regular board meeting Aug. 9, failed in a tie 3-3. The second vote, which was Monday, Aug. 16 during a specially called meeting, failed 4-3.

The vote came the evening of the first day of school and within the hour of HSD Transportation and Safety Supervisor Chris Hammond telling the board that the HSD had identified a positive student who attended class that day. Hammond’s duties include contact tracing COVID cases in the district.

The written resolution Superintendent Tracy Streeter presented the board Monday would have instituted a mask mandate for all students and staff in Kindergarten to grade 12. It contained several stipulations, however, including that masks were “to be worn only when indoors and when six feet social distance cannot be maintained.” It also would have required masks to be worn on school busses, and allowed an exemption for individuals with medical conditions or disabilities with which a mask would have inhibited or interfered.

The proposed resolution ended on a note that, “The Hamburg School Board will review pertinent data monthly and make changes accordingly.”

Before the resolution was introduced, Streeter asked Hammond to explain to the board the health department’s guidelines for schools concerning quarantining those who have close contacts with a COVID-positive person.

Hammond said that the guidelines require only the positive person to quarantine if they and the close contact were wearing masks, but if either person was not wearing a mask, both have to go into quarantine.

In the instance of the COVID-positive person in the school on Monday, Hammond said that because the teacher did a good job of keeping students socially distanced, only the positive person had to go home.

“You can do that in some classrooms,” he said. “You can’t do it in all of them, but in this one you can.”

As part of the discussion about masks preventing mandatory quarantines, Streeter showed the board information from the Marion School District, which had a significant COVID outbreak.

Streeter pointed out that  on Aug. 11 the Marion district had 79 students quarantined, and on Aug. 12 a total of 84 students were; on Aug. 13, however, that number dried to 13. The reason for that dramatic drop, Streeter said, is because Marion enacted a mask mandate on Aug. 11.

“When you start contact tracing your close contacts, you go back 48 hours,” she said. “Once the mask mandate was put in place, they had to quarantine 70 fewer kids.”

Streeter said the recommendation to mandate masks came from her position as someone who is tasked with educating students.

“We are not a politician; we are not a physician; we are educators, and you can’t educate kids if they aren’t here,” she said.

When discussing the mandate with the board, Streeter said the district would review the data relating to the number of COVID cases in the area with the board every 14 days. The superintendent told the board that the data the district was collecting using the COVID Act Now database at covidactnow.org is updated every day at noon. In addition to looking at the district’s own numbers, HSD administrators are also looking at the numbers for the area that the HSD covers, she said.

“We are trying to work with our data every day, which Chris is giving to you,” Streeter said. “We are trying to stick with a location or a number that is not five days or more out, because if you wait that long, you are infected already and don’t know it.”

The database rates the vulnerability level for contracting COVID in Ashley County as “very high” because of the rate of daily new cases. The Arkansas Department of Health’s reported number of active cases for the county stood at 144 Monday evening. Since last week, one additional COVID-related death has been recorded in the county, bringing the total to 38 in the last 17 months.

When a school board member asked Hammond if screening for temperatures would be effective in catching potential COVID cases, he said that — though the district had a number of quarantines last year — none of them were caught using a temperature screening. When students get sick, he said, “We are going off of an honor system, just waiting on that phone call.”

Board President Jim Wells said he would not vote for a mask mandate because he did not want to take away the rights of parents to choose if their students wear masks or not.

Streeter said she didn’t want to take away the rights of parents.

“If I don’t have children in school, I cannot educate them. That is the only stand I am taking,” she said.

Secretary Debbie Jackson said the matter of masks is not about personal privilege.

“There is that one little kid who might have gotten everybody infected,” she said. “It is not about your right, it is about making sure everyone is safe. I don’t want my child to come to school and actually get sick or to come to school and take it and infect everybody else. It is all about the kids.”

Wells responded that the school district closed down temporarily last school year because 15 percent of the population had the flu, but that the number of COVID cases in the district was far below that.

“I know COVID is horrible,” he said. “There are a lot of things that hurt our kids and hurt our parents and hurt our staff, but we never mentioned a mask to keep kids in school about the flu.”

Board member Maggie Ware responded heatedly that, “This isn’t the flu we are working with now.”

She continued, “When we took the oath of office, it wasn’t to protect the parents; we are here to protect the kids.”

Wells countered with, “Who is going to protect them when they leave at 3:30 p.m.?”, to which Ware rejoined, “Our job is to protect them while they are on school property.”

When Ware asked if the board was going to allow the members of the community who were present to address the board, Wells said that normally community members have to submit their intention to speak at a meeting in writing five days in advance. 

After some discussion about the propriety of allowing members of the public to address the board at a special-called meeting, Ware made a motion to amend the agenda to allow them to do so. Jackson seconded the motion, but it failed 4-3 with Wells, James Hartshorn, Shawn Carpenter and Trey Tubbs voting against it. Ware, Jackson, and Suzanne Singleton voted to allow audience members to speak.

Following that vote, Singleton made a motion to accept Streeter’s recommendation for a mask policy. Jackson offered the second, and when the matter went to a vote it also failed 4-3 with Jackson, Singleton and Ware voting in favor and Carpenter, Hartshorn, Tubbs and Wells voting against.

Before the meeting ended Ware asked if it would be possible to separate students who wear masks and those who do not. Streeter said some other school districts have discussed that but there are significant legal questions about such a move.

“I guess we will rely on the honor code at home and stress that those who want to wear a mask can wear a mask,” Singleton said.

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