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By Mike Scott
No more masks. At least for now.
The Clark County R-1 School Board voted Tuesday evening to drop their classroom mask mandate, starting immediately. Currently, there are only six active cases of COVID-19 in Clark County.
“Statewide, the numbers are looking good,” said Clark County Health Department Administrator Evelena Sutterfield. “We did the right thing.”
New guidelines from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education now allow a “test to stay in school” option.
Under the newly-released option, students identified as close contacts, as long as they are not family contacts, would have the option of testing regularly to stay in school. It would also allow them to remain in extracurricular activities, as long as they were tested the day of the activity.
“Our concern is manpower,” said Superintendent Ritchie Kracht. “We will probably need to hire somebody if the numbers increase.”
“I don’t have the manpower to track and report every student,” said CCR-1 Nurse Ardith Harmon. She added that the actual testing and reporting does not need to be done by a health care professional.
If COVID-19 numbers were to increase again, the number of “close contact” students needing regular tests could range from dozens to hundreds. Parents could also opt out of the tests, and keep their students home.
“The culture at the High School would improve dramatically if we didn’t have to wear masks,” said High School Principal Jason Harper. “We have negative interactions with great kids every day because of them.”
“On the Elementary side,” added Black Hawk Principal Betsy Parrish, “The kids are doing okay. The teachers aren’t getting any breaks, and it wears on them.”
“You can get rid of the masks. That is a school board decision,” said Sutterfield. “I still have to find out who the close contacts are and notify them. I still will have to quarantine kids.”
Sutterfield explained that she is required by state statutes to combat infectious disease.
“I look around the community, and nobody is wearing masks. We just had over 20 schools here for Parade of Champions, and people were sitting in the stands without masks. People are done with it,” said board member Kevin Ross.Language Arts teacher Erin Hopp expressed concerns about the long-term impact of masks on students, particularly since many language skills are based on recognizing facial movements.
Board member Craig Hunziker made the motion to get rid of masks, but maintain the relationship with the Health Department to assist them in contact tracing.
“I’m on board with getting rid of the masks,” said board member Heather Weber-Webster, “But I want to keep the relationship with the Health Department.”
Not everyone agreed. One of the dozen or so audience members in attendance asked if keeping the relationship with the Health Department was more important than making the right decision. Another said the board was “chasing their tails trying to keep up with guidelines.”
After discussion, the board voted 4-3 to eliminate the current mask mandate, and take steps to put into place the “test to stay in school” option. Social distancing will also stay in place, where possible, and the elementary schools will remain in their cohort groups.
The board also decided to drop the requirement of wearing masks on school buses.
“There’s debate as to whether it’s really a federal mandate,” said Kracht. “And it makes our bus driver’s job more difficult.”
The board will continue to evaluate its COVID-19 protocols as things continue to change.