Parents upset over mask regulations

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SOUTH MADISON COUNTY — Like the regular scheduled meeting last week, emotions were expected to be high at the South Madison Community School Corp. scheduled special meeting of the Board of School Trustees Wednesday, Aug. 25, at Pendleton Heights High School Auditorium.

The lone topic on the agenda was the board’s consideration of updates to the district’s 2020-21 COVID-19 Operation Plan.

Last week, Superintendent Mark Hall said positive COVID-19 cases at the schools have been very high. The district has had more positive cases during the first couple of weeks of school, particularly in the high school and middle school, than it had the entire 2020-21 first quarter.

On Thursday, Aug. 19, the high school and middle school switched to the current pandemic plan’s Level 4, virtual instruction.

East Elementary, Maple Ridge Elementary and Pendleton Elementary were set at Level 3, a traditional schedule with enhanced safety and social distancing protocols, which includes wearing face coverings.

At the board’s regular scheduled meeting, also conducted Thursday, Aug. 19, a number of parents addressed the board upset about their children having to wear masks at school.

The board eventually voted to change mask requirements at the elementary schools to optional by a vote of 4-2.

Voting against the plan’s change were board president Bill Hutton and newly appointed board member John Lord.

The elementary schools are at Level 3 in all phases of the plan except for mask wearing, where they are at Level 2.

Hutton said Wednesday’s meeting was moved from the administrative offices to the auditorium because of the expectation of a larger crowd, as well as to help maintain social distancing.

“People didn’t wear masks when we were at the central office (meeting last week), and some of the people were concerned about that,” Hutton said. “Now they will be able to social distance, and it’ll be a little bit more comfortable.”

Hutton added, at the special meeting, another adjustment could be made to the operational plan depending on what happens.

“I am hopeful that somebody will come up with a good idea that we hear (Wednesday night), so that adjustments can be made intelligently and not emotionally,” Hutton said. “Right now it seems like things are pretty emotional.”

Hutton added that he expected Wednesday to be emotional, too, with the anticipation of meeting involvement from parents on both sides of the mask issue.

Frankton-Lapel Schools Superintendent Bobby Fields said they had more than 100 parents at their Aug. 12 board meeting upset that students were required to wear masks.

The school district, as did South Madison, initially planned to open its doors to students with masks as optional. That plan was changed after a meeting on Aug. 6 of Madison County superintendents with the county health department, whose data was showing a rapid rise of positive COVID-19 cases in the county.

South Madison schools began Aug. 5 with masks optional, but have made changes, if needed, weekly, with consideration of recommendations from health experts.

Fields said the county and state health departments along with the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) recommended, at the Aug. 6 meeting, masks/face coverings to be worn at schools, so they complied.

“We haven’t had a whole lot of positives yet, but we started out requiring masks for all grades except for kindergarten, first and second,” Fields said. “(We had) one of the later starting dates. I don’t know if the late start is why we are still low in transmission or if it’s because we have been in masks the whole time. We haven’t had any outbreaks yet.”

For all schools, by federal law, masks remain mandatory on school buses.