Two parents expressed their frustration with the school system’s mask mandate during the August meeting of the Cumberland County Board of Education.
It was the first time the board has heard community comments since meetings moved to a virtual format in April. The parents had contacted the school system and board members to be part of the meeting.
Jon Matthews said, “At the beginning of the school year, you ladies and gentlemen of the board of education made a decision loosely based on the recommendations of the Tennessee Department of Health. Except in this decision, you placed more faith in PPE than what can be achieved.”
Matthews said respirators, specifically N95 masks, cannot filter particles small enough to prevent someone from breathing in the COVID-19 virus.
The Tennessee Department of Health has said people should wear a cloth face covering in public when around people outside their household, especially when social distancing of at least 6 feet is difficult to maintain. Children younger than 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove their mask without assistance should not use cloth masks.
The board mandated everyone would wear face coverings, such as cloth masks or fabric shields, unless they have a medical reason not to wear a mask.
Matthews said masks should not be worn by children who touch, pull on or chew on their mask.
“In my experience, this is mainly because the mask then could become a route of entry into the child’s system,” he said. “It could also be added stress to the child.”
Matthews said masks should be changed every two hours, even when worn properly, and masks should be cleaned daily.
“I don’t feel you guys fully understand the concept of contamination controls or engineering controls,” he said.
He said the school system had purchased thousands of dollars’ worth of cleaning supplies, but had not hired additional custodial staff to clean the schools.
“You have thrown money and materials at a problem, hoping the already diminished staff can double their workload and keep up, instead of giving them a chance to get ahead,” Matthews said.
Matthews said he was glad the school system had opened with in-person learning this year, saying the students need that socialization and teacher-led instruction.
However, he feels the board should reconsider how it is implementing a mask mandate. For starters, masks shouldn’t be leaving the school grounds each day, he said, and masks should be clean when students or staff bring them to the school.
“These kids are touching, pulling, adjusting these masks constantly, just as many of you are. Every time you do, you are increasing your chances of either contracting or spreading the virus,” Matthews said.
Matthews said he believes the mask mandate must be reversed.
“There are better options,” he said. “For the safety of our kids and the protection of our community, reverse this pipe dream that masks are the best option for our community.”
Elizabeth Stull also asked the board to change the mandate to optional wearing of masks.
She said her concerns center on the long-term health and well-being of children wearing masks seven or more hours each day. She asked for proof that masks were effective, that children spread the virus, and that masks are not harmful to children’s emotional health, as well.
“None of these items were considered or addressed when the mask mandate was put out,” Stull said. “I understand we’ve all been in a situation in the country where everything is new and we’re trying to adjust and do the best things for everyone.
“But there’s more that needs to be considered in the masking of our children for seven or more hours a day.”
She said some parents have reached out to board members with no response.
Stull also said the school system had denied several requests for religious exemptions to wearing the masks.
“I understand that that religious exemption was denied. But in that, students were ridiculed and belittled for turning in a religious exemption. And that, according to your statutes and Tennessee state laws, is not acceptable to ridicule students for their faith,” she said.
“Those are personal, deeply held beliefs,” she said.
The board took no action and held no discussion of the mask mandate during the remainder of the meeting.
However, Teresa Boston, 8th District representative, asked for copies of their comments to be distributed to the nine board members.
“I hope you understand we are doing the best we can do,” Boston told the parents. “I appreciate you being willing to come and express your concerns before this board.”