Parents took to Facebook to express their complaints and support of the Madison County School District’s (MCSD) extension of level three COVID-19 procedures, which requires everyone to wear a mask indoors.
The mask mandate was extended on September 9 an additional 14 days as the level required is reexamined every two weeks. Superintendent Charlotte Seals said when the plans were developed in June and July for this school year’s protocols, they couldn’t have anticipated the strength and the high transmission rate of the Delta variant during the school year.
“Unfortunately, as we approached the start of school, those numbers started rising because of the Delta variant,” Seals said. “We saw a huge number of cases compared to the number of cases that we had a year ago. Based on the data from the state, local and district level, we felt like we were going to have to pivot.”
At the start of the school year, the district planned to be following level two protocol which did not require masks. However, a few days into the school year, the district upgraded to level three as COVID-19 cases rose. Seals said her job is to have a variety of tools to help slow the transmission of the virus, and one of those tools is the face covering.
“Ultimately, what we are trying to do is keep our kids in school,” Seals said. “What we learned from last year is that kids learn better face-to-face and in school. We have to have a variety of tools we can use to keep as many students and teachers in school as possible because that affects the quality of teaching and learning.”
When the announcement was made, parents took to Facebook disagreeing as to whether it was the best course of action. One parent of students formerly at Mannsdale Elementary withdrew her students because of the requirement.
“We just don’t agree with the way that the MCSD has handled anything,” Casey Craft said. “We pulled our kids out because we don’t believe in wearing the mask.”
Craft said she is a scientist who has worked with research and medical numbers for over a decade, and she believes the curve will be flattened but not due to people wearing their masks.
“It is just the nature of the beast,” Craft said. “[Numbers are] going to go up and going to come down because it’s a novel virus. Our immune systems have done this before. You’re telling me those least affected by the virus have to wear a mask seven hours a day? It’s just not right.”
Her eldest daughter, who is in fifth grade, was accepted into private school after the family applied upon hearing rumors during the summer masks may be required. Her current school does not have a mask mandate. Craft’s second grade daughter is currently being homeschooled after beginning the year at Mannsdale prior to the district moving to level three.
Her daughters had an especially hard time last school year because of the masks and she had been assured this year would be different and masks wouldn’t be required, Craft said.
Craft said she wouldn’t consider sending her daughters back to district unless the entire school board was cleaned out. She said she feels the school board acted rudely and basically told parents at school board meetings who disagreed with decisions to “sit down and shut up,” as Craft paraphrased.
For other parents, the mask mandate provided the freedom for their children to attend school. Jasmine Smith is a parent of children in the Mannsdale Elementary Schools. If not for the mask mandate, Smith said she was considering pulling her children from the classroom.
“I appreciated the mask mandate being put in place because with it being optional, we considered pulling them out because it wasn’t worth the risk,” Smith said. “Cases were already reported within the first weeks of school. I didn’t want to take them out because it took a toll on adults but also children.”
Smith said both her children as well as herself and her husband are immunocompromised. Her children and herself also have asthma. This places her family in a high risk category.
“I support [the school district] whole-heartedly,” Smith said. “ I wanted my children to return to the classroom this year, but it wasn’t worth putting them at risk to do so.”
Smith said the mandate allows her to feel a bit safer sending her children to school. Both of her children do not sit at desks but tables with three other students. This doesn’t have the space required for proper social distancing.
“With the mask mandate being put in place, it gave us that extra assurance that our children are somewhat safer because they’re sitting next to somebody with a mask,” Smith said.
If the school district decides after 14 days to lower the risk level within the schools and drop the mandate, Smith said she and her husband will have to once again consider keeping their children home from school. This is an ongoing discussion her family has with her children’s doctors and staff at the school district as they decide what is best to keep their family safe.
“I hate it has been politicized the way it has because it has nothing to do with politics and has everything to do with safety,” Smith said.
Seals said she understands there are strong feelings on this complicated matter. However for her the focus remains on providing a safe learning environment for the more than 13,000 children in the district.
“It is a very complicated matter and I get that and empathize with everyone,” Seals said. “We are focusing on having school. Parents have to make the decision that they feel is best for their child and I totally respect that.”
She said they are doing everything they can to keep the schools’ doors open and making sure the teachers have the ability to teach in person every day. She said, although there was a virtual option last year, there is nothing that replaces in-class learning.
“We have to make some tough decisions sometimes but, at the end of the day, we want to have our kids in school so we can keep them on track to graduate and be successful,” Seals said. “I wish every parent and student the best, and I respect different opinions. We have to try to find that balance and do what’s best for our students and our school.”