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TCSS pivots, mandates masks for 2021-22 school year

The Troup County School System voted Thursday night to require masks for students at the start of the school year, a reversal from a decision in July that allowed mask-wearing to be optional.

The board was split with Tanya Jones-Cameron, Becky Grubbs, Joe Franklin, Ferrell Blair, Cathy Hunt and Allen Simpson voting for the mask mandate. Brandon Brooks voted against. Grubbs said she voted yes with reservations.

“We have 12,200 kids in this district,” said Superintendent Brian Shumate, while making his recommendation that the board approve a mask mandate. “We’ve got about 50 people here tonight that are represented. There’s also a lot of voices on the other side of this issue. And we hear all, and we listen to it all.”

The vote allows the mandate to be revisited quickly, if numbers start to improve countywide. No exact timeline was given, but the board discussed revisiting if numbers dictate.

The meeting at times got a little testy, as the board allowed the speakers their allotted two minutes to speak apiece and then went forward with their meeting.

A total of 13 people spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting — before the vote. Twelve of the 13 spoke against a mask mandate.

“Y’all are not the ones sitting in the car riders line in the mornings because these babies are getting out in the mornings crying because they don’t want to put these masks on,” said William Cavender, the second speaker. “And ya’ll are not the ones that have to pick them up in the evenings when they’re screaming from headaches from having to wear these masks all day long at school.”

Former School Board Member Ashley Adams noted that the board represented the people and should listen to what the community wants.

“I feel like you are in a position where you feel like you probably need to support this man and his proposal … Unfortunately, he doesn’t represent us,” Adams said, referring to Shumate. “Y’all do. Y’all were elected by mamas just like me … And that’s what you’ve got to think about. He’s not from here … Y’all have to understand what this community wants, and what we’re saying to you right now.”

Others raised the point that students, especially younger ones, need to be able to read their teacher’s facial expressions.

“The little ones — thank God I don’t have any littles ones right now — because I can’t imagine having to explain to them why they can’t tell if their teacher is smiling, laughing, or yelling out of anger,” said Dawn Williams.

The board — typically in unison in public votes — was split on the issue.

Hunt noted the change in numbers over the last few weeks as the reason why she voted in support of the mandate.

“We’ve absorbed a lot of information, and I too was very happy earlier in the summer, with the idea that we make masks optional. We were all happy. It was nice this summer to sort of get back to normal,” Hunt said. “We are faced — and school boards across the state are faced — with re evaluating now because things have changed immensely.”

At that point, several in the audience made loud comments, and Hunt had to warn them that they could not do so.

“Excuse me. We have officers here and if you can’t be respectful of what we had to say, like we were respectful of what you had to say. then I’m going to ask them to remove you,” Hunt said. “You do not get to shout at us.”

Later in the meeting, a couple of audience members were asked to leave for repeatedly speaking out. They did leave without incident.

Shumate said he knew of 16 students with positive cases as of Thursday, and he expected numbers to increase when students returned to school.

He noted that CDC guidelines for vaccinated students were very different from guidelines for unvaccinated students, and that the school system was going to follow those guidelines. Assuming there are no symptoms, vaccinated students can stay in school if in close contact with a COVID-19 case. Unvaccinated students must go into quarantine. 

“It’s not just the amount of positive cases, it’s the amount of quarantining that you have to do,” Shumate said. “If I have to send 15 teachers home in an elementary school, that whole school has to shut down because we don’t have enough substitutes.”

Several board members spoke at length about their opinions. Grubbs and Brooks weren’t there in person but called into the meeting to participate.

Grubbs, a former elementary school teacher, seemed to be leaning against after discussing the importance of younger students being able to learn facial expressions. She later voted in favor, though she said it was with “much reservation.” Blair asked questions about the longterm effects, noting the unknown of the virus longterm, and voted yes on the mandate.

Brooks, who had a vary serious case of COVID-19 earlier this year, said he believed it should be a parental choice.

“I will support whatever the majority of this board does, but as an individual, I am against mandates. Trying to put politics and opinions aside, this should be on the parents. Mamas and daddies,” he said. “Nobody on this board is closer to this subject than I am, and I can say that an absolute confidence because COVID almost killed me.”

Franklin said that he came into the meeting with the idea that TCSS could stay with optional masks, watch the numbers, then determine if anything needed to change.

However, then he rethought the idea when he considered the worst possible outcomes.

“How many sick kids is too many? How many deaths is too many? I can answer that question, not even one,” he said.

Simpson and Jones-Cameron both spoke in favor of the mandate, and Simpson made the motion to approve the proposal.

TCSS sent a press release after the meeting saying it was reopening virtual school options up for students on Monday, which is the first day of class.