JEFFERSON — The Ashe County Board of Education met in regular session on Monday, Oct. 4 in the annex of the Ashe County Schools central location to vote to keep masks mandated in all Ashe County schools.
The meeting was attended by Chair Josh Roten, Vice Chair Dianne Eldreth, Dr. Kim Simmons, Polly Jones, Keith McClure, Superintendent Dr. Eisa Cox, Finance Officer Amanda Coldiron, Jamie Little as well as some community members who made public comments.
The meeting began with comments from Cox with updates on the school system and events.
Cox put out a reminder that Oct. 8 is an early release day for students. Elementary schools will release at 11:30 a.m., Middle school is noon, Early College is 12:15 p.m. and High School is 12:30 p.m.
The schools also held a vaccine clinic for those eligible.
“We held a vaccine clinic at the middle and high school on Sept. 24 and had about 24 students who had parent permission who participated,” said Cox. “Eligible staff members were able to get their booster shot. We have a handout for later in the COVID section with updated information on vaccines in our community.”
Cox also spoke on grants the system has received including a mental health grant and a new middle school clinic grant.
“We have been awarded a continuation of the federal mental health grant,” Cox said. “The total amount for grant is $2.5 million, this year continuation amount is about $675,000. This grant pays for mental health services through our ASC center at the high school, and a social worker.”
The school board also received money for the new middle school health clinic.
“This is fresh off the press and I’m excited to share that earlier this year, Adam Stumb, Jennifer Greene and I met about a grant opportunity for the Bulldog Clinic at the new middle school and provided specifications and costs toward the endeavor,” said Cox. “Today Jennifer Greene was informed that we have been awarded $550,667 toward the costs of that clinic. This is great news for our community and the continuing partnership we have with AppHealth to provide needed services to our middle school students.”
After comments from the Superintendent, the board opened the floor for public comments.
Drew Martin spoke along with a few others on how they feel masks should not be mandated in schools.
After having been through the school system himself as well as leading his kids through Ashe County, Martin said that kids simply cannot learn and interact the way they should while wearing masks all day.
Regarding the issue, McClure said he appreciates the comments given, but he still has concerns about the novel coronavirus.
“I’ve looked at the data and numbers which are going down and I think that is reflecting what is happening in the schools,” said McClure. “I want to see that the numbers continue on a downward trend before we make another decision next month.”
Roten said he still feels the same as he did in the beginning, which is for parents to make the choice of whether or not their child should wear masks. He said with using cloth masks, mold and filth is likely, making it harder for children to breath and stay protected. Simmons seconded this idea that parents should make their own choices, but she said that our county is not prepared emotionally or physically to go maskless in the following days.
“I don’t think that we, as a whole, I dare say across the state, that we are prepared for things like this to support our students and teachers who have some of those anxieties,” said Simmons. “It’s not that I’m not in support of choice, I just don’t think we’d be ready tomorrow to go without them.”
Jones said she gets numerous comments, emails and calls about the fear of going maskless. She sides that the masks have caused the numbers to go down.
“I don’t like them either, but I think they have made the numbers go down,” said Jones. “If we take them off, the numbers are going to go up. The CDC plainly states that this is the single best deterrent we have at this time.”
Simmons said that she thinks that we have to prepare for a transition.
“It has to happen eventually,” Simmons said. “What will the percentages be, what will the protocols be, what will the supports need to be? Someday, the masks have got to go away and that transition has to be in full preparation.”
Eldreth said she is not ready to go without. She doesn’t think that the numbers are what they need to be.
“We started this process (and) the numbers were under five percent and now it’s at 11. I don’t think we’re ready.”
In regard to encouraging disposable masks, Cox said they have purchased boxes and more washable masks that will fit and perform properly. Cox said she encourages children bringing a bag of clean masks with them to change out whenever they feel the need. All schools have disposable masks available for those who are in need.
The Board then ultimately made the decision to vote on whether they believe the mask mandate should continue.
Eldreth made the motion to keep masks, which Jones seconded. McClure voted yes, Jones voted yes, Eldreth voted yes, Simmons voted no and Roten voted no. The vote carried three to two.
In addition to the continuation of masks, the Board approved the Test-to-Stay option which allows a student or teacher who has been exposed to receive a rapid test at school to determine whether or not they are allowed to stay at school. This will ultimately reduce quarantine times along with keeping students in the classroom environment.
The Test-to-Stay option knocked out the pool testing option for sports, as it will allow the student body as a whole to participate with parental consent.
Athletic Director Brian Hampton said he favored Test-to-Stay over pool testing as it will reduce the lack of practicing and classroom time for students.