Approximately 15 parents, grandparents, and neighbors attended the September Westville School Board Meeting to voice their opposition to a mask mandate with an opt-out provision.
The students can opt out for medical, religious, and personal reasons, while teachers and support staff can opt out for medical and religious reasons. None of those who choose to opt out are required to mask on campus.
Each speaker had a three minute window with a total of 30 minutes, but the discussion continued for more than an hour. Parents Kris Pilcher and Sarah Colllins read prepared statements while most others kept their comments brief.
Pilcher, who has three children in school, said, “We will not compromise our values. We are saying no, and any coercion will be met with litigation.”
She stated that a student whose parents had signed an opt-out form was “called out for not wearing a mask,” that her son experiences extreme anxiety while wearing a mask, that one of her daughters made her first “B” during virtual school last year and that the grades kids make during the pandemic will follow them indefinitely.
Pilcher’s husband, Andrew, then spoke briefly, stating that he believes masks should be a choice and that, “masks don’t work.”
Collins’ prepared statement dealt primarily with what she termed “greed and power,” and asked why COVID relief monies the school district received were not made public. She touched on increased suicide rates due to isolation during COVID, and voiced opposition to virtual school. She pointed out that attendees at the county fair and sporting events are not required to wear masks, and said, “Parents are being treated like they are in the way.”
She spoke for five minutes. Finally, Board President Nathan Smith reminded her that she had gone past her time.
Superintendent Terry Heustis told her that the monies spent and earmarked are a matter of public record and that there was a community meeting after the parent/teacher conference to discuss how the funding should and could be used, “but only about 10 people showed up.”
He also explained that a school cannot require masks except on school property.
Sharon Thomas then took the floor, first telling the audience that her grandchildren are home schooled.
“You need to pull your kids out of public school,” she said.
Facing the board, Thomas said, “You are what is dragging our country down,” and, “We won’t go anywhere masks are mandated.” Her husband, Roger Thomas, said that he has had COVID and was on Ivermectin. He added that he’s had six bypasses, can’t breathe in a mask, and refuses to get a vaccine.
Heustis then explained that 20 percent of the students in Westville District – not home schooled – have opted out of a mask mandate and that he is more than willing to discuss how COVID relief monies are being spent with any of the parents who want to come by his office.
“This has been the hardest 18 months of my life. I care about the kids. People who study this say that masks are a layer of protection. It’s like handwashing, vaccines, social distancing – they are all layers of protection. None are perfect. There is more danger of infection inside [a building] than outside. This county is one of the highest in the state for transmission,” said Heustis.
He added, emphatically, “I do not want to go virtual again, but when we don’t have enough staff, we have to go virtual.”
Heustis also invited any attendees who were interested to apply to be substitute teachers and/or bus drivers.
“If you want to be mad at me for trying to keep kids safe, be mad at me,” he said.
Another attendee, identified only as Jeremy, said his six-year-old daughter is not reading at grade level because she can’t see the teacher’s mouth form the words due to the teacher being masked.
Assistant Superintendent of IT Ryan Swank spoke up, explaining that, legally, opt-out forms are necessary for numerous reasons, especially if students are not vaccinated for religious or medical reasons. He said that he had COVID and was very ill.
“I don’t know if masks help, but I don’t want to be responsible for the death of a child,” said Swank.
He added that he hadn’t thought about the teachers being masked being detrimental to kids learning to read and stated that needed to be addressed and a solution found.
Smith asked about liability and Heustis replied that he has been told that many insurance companies are requiring that their insureds to have a COVID plan in place for liability coverage. A mask mandate with opt-out status is considered part of a COVID plan, as are implementing better ventilation systems, cameras for contract tracing, etc.
Board member Clay Slayton said that he doesn’t believe masks work and that his family recovered from COVID.
After a few more minutes of discussion on the mandate and the liability issues, the board voted 3-2 for the mandate, with Slayton and Paula Vaughan voting no; and Smith, James Hinkle, and Josh Barton voting yes.
After the voting was completed, Special Services Director Kathy Mathews thanked the board for their votes, citing that she has several medically fragile students who cannot themselves wear masks, and so are dependent on not being exposed by other students. She added that she is diabetic and currently fighting cancer and she’d had approximately 25 meetings that week with unmasked parents.
Heustis told her that he would check to see if parents could be required to mask while on school property.
Vaughan left before the lengthy meeting was over, and after an executive session, the remaining four members of the board voted to hire Minnie Sanders and Diedra Eagleton as custodians. They worked as custodians last year on a program through the Cherokee Nation.
Kellie Keen was added as a signer and Norma Fletcher, who recently retired, removed as a signer on account 2023.
Also approved were mentor teachers for the first year teachers, adjusting substitute pay to $75 a day for uncertified personnel and $100 for certified personnel and to reassign two members of support staff as requested.
Two paraprofessionals – Hannah Clinton and Deane Kiddy, who has been working as a night janitor – were hired. Kiddy, who has a granddaughter in the Special Services program, will be able to ride and help on the bus to and from school.
Per diem for travel and expenses was adjusted to $50 in state and $75 for out of state without requiring receipts.
The next meeting is scheduled for October 25 at 5:00 p.m.