School board adopts Health Department mask guidance; more than 80 students quarantined, sick or being tested

by Kate Evans

The Morgan County School Board voted to require universal indoor face coverings for students, staff and visitors on Morgan County Schools properties and buses when levels of community transmission rise to substantial or high.

This is as determined by the 7-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases per the Morgan-Berkeley County Board of Health.

Masking goes into effect for seven contiguous days on the Monday following the release of the data.

The school board’s action took place at their September 7 meeting and followed a discussion of the indoor mask and mitigation protocols for Morgan County Schools.

The board’s move gave formal approval of the Health Department’s face mask mandate that the schools have been following for the past month. Every week classes have been in session, students and staff have been masked.

Student, staff cases

Morgan County School Superintendent Kristen Tuttle said Morgan County Schools had 85 students quarantined or that were sick or being tested as of Tuesday, September 7.

Local schools have 13 students test positive for COVID-19.  Four staff members were quarantined and two staff members were positive for the virus as of late last week.

4-1 vote for mask rule

The school board voted 4-1 to approve the universal mask measure, with school board president Aaron Close voting against it.

Close said at the meeting that he wasn’t against masking because it keeps kids in school. He was voting against the measure because the school board was adopting something they were already ordered to do and it takes away his authority from the position that he’s elected to do.

Close said that the state was mandating quarantine, school closing and other COVID-19 guidelines and that the school board didn’t have local control.

Close said in a later email that the school board “took ownership of masking kids in school by approving this motion even though the health department’s board and officer already stated we had to do as much per Bowles Rice attorneys.”

The board prayed that it’s a short-lived mask requirement, he stressed.

Legal opinion

Bowles Rice attorneys said in an August 24 letter to the West Virginia School Board Association that West Virginia Code 16-3-2 gives local Health Departments the power to declare a quarantine to prevent the spread of an infectious disease.

West Virginia Code of State Regulations 64-7-7 gives local health officers “the authority to implement measures that stem the spread of outbreaks of communicable diseases.”

“Therefore, when a local health departments or local health officer mandates masks in the schools, the county board has no choice but to comply with the directive,” the attorneys said in the letter.

Board members share views

Close had said at the meeting that they could do a resolution to accept the Health Department’s mask guidelines or do nothing.  Doing nothing causes problems for   Superintendent Tuttle. Adopting their own mandate wasn’t something they had the authority to do.

Close said he would vote down any resolution that went against the Health Department’s ruling.  He felt they didn’t have the authority to go against it.  He noted that 30 out of 55 West Virginia counties have some kind of face mask policy.

School board member John Rowland voted for the measure, saying that he doesn’t have the education or skills to raise opposition to what Health Officer Dr. Kevin McLaughlin says –none of them do.

Board member Laura Smith asked if they could go back to having lunches in the classroom.  Tuttle said that wasn’t possible with a full day school schedule.  Smith noted that the school system had over 2,000 students to protect.

Board member Eric Lyda asked Close what he recommended.  Close said he advised they follow the Health Department’s guidelines directing the superintendent to enforce the mask policy.

New state guidelines

Superintendent Tuttle was working up until Friday, September 3 with different quarantine and isolation guidelines for COVID-19.

According to the updated State School Recovery Guidance Document, quarantining students and staff that have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 isn’t required if masks are worn at the point of exposure, including extracurricular activities, if schools have a universal mask policy.

School COVID-19 outbreak definitions were multiple cases involving 10% of students, teachers or staff or at least three cases within a specific core group-classroom, extra-curricular activity or sports team.

Public comments

Four parents spoke against the face mask mandate in the public comments portion of the meeting-Josh Holmes, Kenneth Davis, Sarah Davis and Cindy Bartley.  Reasons they claimed for their position included kids’ health, breathing difficulties, wanting choice for masks and no COVID-19 cases this summer with sports, close contact and no masks.

At their August 23 special meeting,    Widmyer Elementary music teacher Becky Herdering cited Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance and the science that say masks are the easiest way to slow COVID-19 down.  Nobody likes to wear masks, but masks are about keeping each other and ourselves safe.

The August 4 CDC update also recommended that all teachers, school staff and age-eligible students be vaccinated as soon as possible, she noted.

“We want kids back in the classroom and want to be safe too,” Herdering said.

More comments

Close said that Governor Justice is pushing vaccinations and urged everyone to talk to their primary care physicians about getting COVID-19 vaccinations.

Lyda said he is a parent and appreciated all that came to speak with their face mask concerns.  He noted that he disagrees with them because he has other information. Lyda said he would vote for the motion and urged the board to do the same.

Board vice-president Pete Gordon said he agreed with Lyda and said he appreciated the parents coming.  Gordon said that Morgan County is a hot spot and that they do what they do to keep students and staff safe and in school.  He supported the motion because he trusts the Morgan County Health Department.

Close said they would follow their new mask guidelines until they needed to change them.